A farmer and an soldier exchange tales of how they were betrayed by an unjust government. Much later in life, Robert Southey would become an enthusiastic proponent of exporting the surplus population.
Robert Southey to G. C. Bedford: "The Botany Bay eclogues I would send but have no copy. They are in the hands of Johnson in Pauls Ch. Yard — for purchase if he chuses to give 15 guineas for them, if not I take the MSS. with me and wait for a better opportunity" 27 September 1794; in New Letters (1965) 80.
Analytical Review: "Of the Botany-Bay eclogues, the first is peculiarly sweet; poor Elinor! she is Penitence itself! The others exhibit in more familiar language the situation and employment of our transports on that distant shore. Though the poetry of the volume is miscellaneous, an air of melancholy pervades the whole" 25 (January 1797) 37.
Francis Jeffrey: "A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society, seems to be at the bottom of all their serious and peculiar sentiments. Instead of contemplating the wonders and the pleasures which civilization has created for mankind, they are perpetually brooding over the disorders by which its progress has been attended. They are filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremitting labour. For all sorts of vice and profligacy in the lower orders of society, they have the same virtuous horror, and the same tender compassion. While the existence of these offences overpowers them with grief and confusion, they never permit themselves to feel the smallest indignation or dislike towards the offenders. The present vicious constitution of society alone is responsible for all these enormities: the poor sinners are but the helpless victims or instruments of its disorders, and could not possibly have avoided the errors into which they have been betrayed. Though they can bear with crimes, therefore, they cannot reconcile themselves to punishments; and have an unconquerable antipathy to prisons, gibbets, and houses of correction, as engines of oppression, and instruments of atrocious injustice. While the plea of moral necessity is thus artfully brought forward to convert all the excesses of the poor into innocent misfortunes, no sort of indulgence is shewn to the offences of the powerful and rich. Their oppressions and seductions, and debaucheries, are the theme of many an angry verse; and the indignation and abhorrence of the reader is relentlessly conjured up against those perturbations of society, and scourges of mankind" Review of Southey, Thalaba; Edinburgh Review 1 (October 1802) 71.
See'st thou not William that the scorching Sun
By this time half his daily race hath run?
The savage thrusts his light canoe to shore,
And hurries homeward with his fishy store.
Suppose we leave awhile this stubborn soil,
To eat our dinner and to rest from toil!
Agreed. Yon tree whose purple gum bestows
A ready medicine for the sick man's woes,
Forms with its shadowy boughs a cool retreat
To shield us from the noontide's sultry heat.
Ah, Humphrey! now upon old England's shore
The weary labourer's morning work is o'er:
The woodman now rests from his measur'd stroke,
Flings down his axe, and sits beneath the oak,
Savour'd with hunger there he eats his food,
There drinks the cooling streamlet of the wood.
To us no cooling streamlet winds its way,
No joys domestic crown for us the day,
The felon's name, the outcast's garb we wear,
Toil all the day, and all the night despair.
Aye, William! labouring up the furrowed ground,
I used to love the village clock's old sound,
Rejoice to hear my morning toil was done,
And trudge it homeward when the clock went one.
'Twas ere I turn'd a soldier and a sinner!
Pshaw! curse this whining — let us fall to dinner.
I too have loved this hour, nor yet forgot
Each joy domestic of my little cot;
For at this hour my wife with watchful care
Was wont each humbler dainty to prepare,
The keenest sauce by hunger was supplied
And my poor children prattled at my side.
Methinks I see the old oak table spread,
The clean white trencher and the good brown bread,
The cheese my daily food which Mary made,
For Mary knew full well the housewife's trade:
The jug of cyder, — cyder I could make,
And then the knives, — I won 'em at the wake.
Another has them now! I toiling here
Look backward like a child and drop a tear.
I love a dismal story, tell me thine,
Meantime, good Will, I'll listen as I dine;
I too, my friend, can tell a piteous story
When I turn'd hero how I purchas'd glory.
But Humphrey, sure thou never canst have known
The comforts of a little home thine own:
A home so snug, so cheerful too, as mine,
'Twas always clean, and we could make it fine.
For there King Charles's golden rules were seen,
And there — God bless 'em both — the King and Queen.
The pewter plates, our garnish'd chimney's grace,
So nicely scour'd, you might have seen your face;
And over all, to frighten thieves, was hung,
Well clean'd, altho' but seldom us'd, my gun.
Ah! that damn'd gun! I took it down one morn—
A desperate deal of harm they did my corn!
Our testy Squire, too, loved to save the breed,
So covey upon covey ate my seed.
I mark'd the mischievous rogues, and took my aim;
I fir'd, they fell, and — up the keeper came.
That cursed morning brought on my undoing;
I went to prison and my farm to ruin.
Poor Mary! for her grave the parish paid,
No tomb-stone tells where her cold corpse is laid!
My children — my poor boys —
Come! — Grief is dry.—
You to your dinner — to my story I.
For you, my friend, who happier days have known,
And each calm comfort of a home your own,
This is bad living: I have spent my life
In hardest toil and unavailing strife,
And here, (from forest ambush safe at least,)
To me this scanty pittance seems a feast.
I was a plough-boy once, as free from woes
And blithesome as the lark with whom I rose.
Each evening at return a meal I found;
And, tho' my bed was hard, my sleep was sound.
One Whitsuntide, to go to fair, I drest
Like a great bumpkin in my Sunday's best;
A primrose posey in my hat I stuck,
And to the revel went to try my luck.
From show to show, from booth to booth I stray,
See stare and wonder all the live-long day.
A Sergeant to the fair recruiting came,
Skill'd in man-catching to beat up for game;
Our booth he enter'd and sat down by me—
Methinks even now the very scene I see!
The canvass roof, the hogshead's running store,
The old blind fiddler seated next the door,
The frothy tankard passing to and fro,
And the rude rabble round the puppet-show;
The Sergeant eyed me well — the punch-bowl comes,
And as we laugh'd and drank, up struck the drums—
And now he gives a bumper to his Wench,
God save the King! and then — God damn the French.
Then tells the story of his last campaign,
How many wounded and how many slain,
Flags flying, cannons roaring, drums a-beating,
The English marching on, the French retreating,—
"Push on — push on, my lads! they fly before ye,
March on to riches, happiness, and glory!"
At first I wonder'd, by degrees grew bolder,
Then cried — "'Tis a fine thing to be a soldier!"
"Aye, Humphrey!" says the sergeant — "that's your name?
Tis a fine thing to fight the French for fame!
March to the field — knock out a Mounseer's brains,
And pick the scoundrel's pocket for your pains.
Come, Humphrey, come! thou art a lad of spirit!
Rise to a halbert — as I did — by merit!
Wouldst thou believe it? even I was once
As thou art now, a plough-boy and a dunce;
But courage raised me to my rank. How now, boy!
Shall Hero Humphrey still be Numps the plough-boy?
A proper shaped young fellow! tall and straight!
Why, thou wert made for glory! five feet eight!
The road to riches is the field of fight!—
Didst ever see a guinea look so bright?
Why regimentals, Numps, would give thee grace,
A hat and feather would become that face;
The girls would crowd around thee to be kiss'd—
Dost love a girl?" "Od Zounds!" I cried, "I'll list!"
So pass'd the night; anon the morning came,
And off I set a volunteer for fame.
"Back shoulders, turn out your toes, hold up your head,
Stand easy!" so I did — till almost dead.
O how I long'd to tend the plough again,
Trudge up the field, and whistle o'er the plain,
When tired and sore, amid the piteous throng,
Hungry, and cold, and wet, I limp'd along,
And growing fainter as I pass'd and colder,
Curs'd that ill hour when I became a soldier!
In town I found the hours more gaily pass,
And Time fled swiftly with my girl and glass;
The girls were wonderous kind and wonderous fair,
They soon transferr'd me to the Doctor's care;
The Doctor undertook to cure the evil,
And he almost transferr'd me to the Devil.
'Twere tedious to relate the dismal story
Of fighting, fasting, wretchedness, and glory.
At last discharg'd, to England's shores I came,
Paid for my wounds with want instead of fame,
Found my fair friends, and plunder'd as they bade me;
They kiss'd me, coax'd me, robb'd me, and betray'd me.
Tried and condemn'd his Majesty transports me,
And here in peace, I thank him, he supports me,
So ends my dismal and heroic story,
And Humphrey gets more good from guilt than glory.