In this burlesque singing contest, signed "T. S., Bromley, Sept 1, 1788," the traditional shepherd and goat herd are recast as a barber and a friseur. This poem is part of the series of eclogues developed as verse characters of the several professions. Indeed, the arts practiced by the two singers are dedicated to establishing just such distinctions among their clients, as in the Barber's wigs: "And, but for mine, | What were the doctor, lawyer, or divine? | Their credit they derive from outward show, | And that to my dexterity they owe. | By long prescription, a full wig contains | Presumptive proof of much intrinsic brains; | But seldom seems the preacher orthodox, | Who mounts the rostrum in his native locks" p. 300. The contest turns on changing fashions, as the wigmaker's trade was being challenged by the fashion for dressing natural hair, which Puff, by the assistance of his powders, can render very like a wig. The contest, held in an alehouse, is settled with Solomonic wisdom by a cobler, the character of whose trade was known for wisdom.
In this vein, compare William Woty's The Caxon (1759), an imitation of Philips's The Splendid Shilling, and J. Percy's "The Village Barber" (1822), written in the manner of Goldsmith's The Deserted Village. The poet is conceivably the "T. S. Esq; of the Middle Temple" who had published Four Pastorals (1768).
Two Brothers of the Comb, congenial pair,
An operator this for beards, and that for hair,
Were next-door neighbours in a country town,
And each other rivall'd in renown.
Both candidates for public favour stood,
Like T—d, we'll suppose, and A—l H—d.
At length, to urge his long contested claim,
Each rival to a neighb'ring alehouse came.
In perriwig of formal cut appear'd
Our Shaver first, sworn foe to ev'ry beard:
Not half so hostile was the mighty Czar,
Who on all Russia's bearded chins made war;
Nor half so rooted were the bristly crops
He sentenc'd to be shaven off their chops,
As was this Barber's hate, whose trenchant blade
On visages such devastation made,
That vagrant Jews, of his profession shy,
On tip-toe slunk in wary silence by,
Afraid of tonsure; nay, the story goes,
He sometimes took the Justice by the nose;
And for a penny, from a beggar's cheek
Would sweep away the frowzy harvest of a week:
A boon companion too, he'd sing a song
Full fifty, year twice fifty couplets long;
All Chevy Chase he knew, bold Robin Hood,
The Man o' Kent, and Children in the Wood;
And many a waggish legend had in store,
To set the tap-room boxes in a roar.
In snow-white vesture, like some youthful bride,
His hair, and eke his shoes with ribbon ty'd,
Came Puff, a self-admiring fop, replete
With pertness, affectation, and conceit;
Yet, for his style of dressing highly priz'd,
And by the fools of fashion patroniz'd,
Scarce seated, he the Shaver ey'd askance,
Who quick retorted the contemptuous glance,
And now each other's faults prepar'd to scan,
The flippant controversy Puff began.
With me, presumptuous miscreant, dost thou vie,
The brush and razor only skill'd to ply?
Or, haply to revive the drooping locks
Of paltry caxons, mounted on thy blocks?
And what the mighty talents thou canst boast?—
To give the hair fantastic forms at most—
To lavish meal upon some coxcomb's head,
Whilst thousands murmur at th' assize of bread.
Reviler, cease: how could the slander fall
Upon my best imported Marechalle!
But vulgar words to vulgar mouths belong;
Such language well befits a Barber's tongue.
From thee the scurrilous example came,
Who durst in disrespectful guise misname
Ev'n sacred things — for know, vain-glorious prig,
I once a week repair our Parson's wig.
To more distinguish'd honours I aspire—
Me all the daughters of our wealthy 'Squire
Employ, to lend new beauties to the face,
And spirit give to ev'ry native grace.
That magic of the mien 'tis I impart—
But for my skill in the cosmetic art,
What were the proudest dame?—
—And, but for mine,
What were the doctor, lawyer, or divine?
Their credit they derive from outward show,
And that to my dexterity they owe.
By long prescription, a full wig contains
Presumptive proof of much intrinsic brains;
But seldom seems the preacher orthodox,
Who mounts the rostrum in his native locks.
Why is our lawyer, pray, so oft retain'd?
His clients purses why so often drain'd?
The doctor's chariot whence, and golden fee?
Their scientific wigs were shap'd by me.
The beauteous locks that from the head depend,
Beneath my care in graceful ringlets end;
What envious Time, bold-pated sire, denies
To aged heads, my needful art supplies.
With minors now their grandames shall compare,
Shall emulate with false their real hair:
And which is false, which real, who can tell?
The one the other imitates so well.
Why vaunt that skill, which, tier o'er tier to raise,
But tortures Nature's growth a thousand ways?
Why vaunt the braid that decks a lady's head?
For aught she knows, 'twas on some felon's bred.
Enough, quoth Johnson, who was umpire nam'd,
For mending shoes and wise decisions fam'd;
Enough, enough, the solemn cobler cry'd,
While "hear him, hear him," rung on ev'ry side:
Your sev'ral merits well ye have discuss'd,
And prov'd to favour your pretensions just.
Now, to requite you — Thou ourself shalt shave,
And, Puff, our daughter's custom thou shalt have;
Her taste for dress the gentry all admire,
And think she'll make a conquest of some 'Squire.