1774
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Sweepers.

Plays and Poems by William Whitehead, Esq. Poet Laureate, and Register and Secretary to the most Honourable Order of the Bath. 2 Vols.

William Whitehead


A Miltonic burlesque describing the business of London's street-sweepers. It is apparent from William Whitehead's poem on a "low" that these laborers were objects of sexual fascination; The Sweepers, for example, concludes with the cautionary tale of Lardella, who, after mistakenly attempting to rise by plying her art at Whitehall rather than St. Giles, finds herself the object of attention for a more dangerous class of admirers: "At sight of her | The coachman drop'd his lash, the porter oft | Forgot his burthen, and with wild amaze | The tall well-booted sentry, arm'd in vain, | Lean'd from his horse to gaze upon her charms" 2:242.

Whitehead's burlesque owes little to Philips's The Splendid Shilling beyond the general manner of Miltonic burlesque. The Sweepers does not describe the daily round of a particular character, though it has points in common with the Philips sequence of burlesques, such as its sexual prurience, fascination with ordure, and description of London life. In some respects it is closer to the town eclogues describing the lives of London laborers.

While the poem may have been composed many years prior to its publication with Whitehead's collected poems, the absence of archaisms and creeping sentimentality of tone perhaps suggest a date not long prior to 1774.



I sing of Sweepers, frequent in thy streets,
AUGUSTA, as the flowers which grace the spring,
Or branches withering in autumnal shades
To form the brooms they wield. Preserv'd by them
From dirt, from coach-hire, and th' oppressive rheums
Which clog the springs of life, to them I sing,
And ask no inspiration but their smiles.

Hail, unown'd youths, and virgins unendow'd!
Whether on bulk begot, while rattled loud
The passing coaches, or th' officious hand
Of sportive link-boy wide around him dash'd
The pitchy flame, obstructive of the joy.
Or more propitious to the dark retreat
Of round-house owe your birth, where Nature's reign
Revives, and emulous of Spartan fame
The mingling sexes share promiscuous love.
And scarce the pregnant female knows to whom
She owes the precious burthen, scarce the sire
Can claim, confus'd, the many-featur'd child.

Nor blush that hence your origin we trace:
'Twas thus immortal heroes sprung of old
Strong from the stol'n embrace; but such as you
Unhous'd, uncloath'd, unletter'd, and unfed,
Were kingdoms model'd, cities taught to rise,
Firm laws enacted, freedom's rights maintain'd,
The gods and patriots of an infant world!

Let others meanly chaunt in tuneful song
The blackshoe race, whose mercenary tribes
Allur'd by halfpence take their morning stand
Where streets divide, and to their proferr'd stools
Solicit wand'ring feet; vain prisoners,
And placemen of the croud! nor traffic vile
Be your employment deem'd, ye last remains
Of public spirits, whose laborious hands,
Uncertain of reward, bid kennels know
Their wonted bounds, remove the bord'ring filth
And give th' obstructed ordure where to glide.

What tho' the pitying passenger bestows
His unextorted boon, must they refuse
The well-earn'd bounty, scorn th' obtruded ore?
Proud were the thoughts and vain. And shall not we
Repay their kindly labors, men like them,
With gratitude unsought? I too have oft
Seen in our streets the wither'd hands of age
Toil in th' industrious task; and can we there
Be thrifty niggards? haply they have known
Far better days, and scatter'd liberal round
The scanty pittance we afford them now.
Soon from this office grant them their discharge,
Ye kind church-wardens! take their meagre limbs
Shiv'ring with cold and age, and wrap them warm
In those blest manifolds Charity has rais'd.

But you of younger years, while vigor knits
Your lab'ring sinews, urge the generous task.
Nor lose in fruitless brawls the precious hours
Assign'd to toil. Be your contentions who
First in the dark'ning streets, when Autumn sheds
Her earliest showers, shall clear th' obstructed pass;
Or last shall quit the field when Spring distills
Her moist'ning dews, prolific there in vain.
So may each lusty scavenger, ye fair,
Fly ardent to your arms; and every maid,
Ye gentle youths, be to your wishes kind.
Whether OSTREA'S fishy fumes allure
As VENUS' tresses fragrant, or the sweets
More mild and rural from her flail who toils
To feast the sages of the Samian school.

Nor ever may your hearts elate with pride
Desert this sphere of love; for should ye, youths,
When blood boils high, and some more lucky chance
Has swell'd your stores, pursue the tawdry band
That romp from lamp to lamp — for health expect
Disease, for fleeting pleasure foul remorse,
And daily, nightly, agonizing pains.
In vain you call for AESCULAPIUS' aid
From White-cross alley, or the azure posts
Which beam thro' Haydon-yard: the god demands
More ample offerings, and rejects your prayer.

And you, ye fair, O let me warn your breasts
To shun deluding men: for some there are,
Great lords of countries, mighty men of war,
And well-dress'd courtiers, who with leering eye
Can in the face begrim'd with dirt discern
Strange charms, and pant for CYNTHIA in a cloud.

But let LARDELLA'S fate avert your own.
LARDELLA once was fair, the early boast
Of proud St. Giles, from its ample pound
To where the column points the seven-fold day.
Happy, thrice happy, had she never known
A street more spacious! but ambition led
Her youthful footsteps, artless, unassur'd,
To Whitehall's fatal pavement. There she ply'd
Like you the active broom. At sight of her
The coachman drop'd his lash, the porter oft
Forgot his burthen, and with wild amaze
The tall well-booted sentry, arm'd in vain,
Lean'd from his horse to gaze upon her charms.

But Fate reserv'd her for more dreadful ills:
A lord beheld her, and with powerful gold
Seduc'd her to his arms. What can not gold
Effect, when aided by the matron's tongue,
Long tried, and practis'd in the trade of vice,
Against th' unwary innocent! A while
Dazzled with splendor, giddy with the height
Of unexperienc'd greatness, she looks down
With thoughtless pride, nor sees the gulph beneath.
But soon, too soon, the high-wrought transport sinks
In cold indifference, and a newer face
Alarms her restless lover's fickle heart.
Distrest, abandon'd, whither shall she fly?
How urge her former task, and brave the winds
And piercing rains with limbs whose daintier sense
Shrinks from the evening breeze? nor has she now,
Sweet Innocence, thy calmer heart-felt aid,
To solace or support the pangs she feels.

Why should the weeping Muse pursue her steps
Thro' the dull round of infamy, thro' haunts
Of public lust, and every painful stage
Of ill-feign'd transport, and uneasy joy?
Too sure she try'd them all, till her sunk eye
Lost its last languish, and the bloom of health,
Which revel'd once on Beauty's virgin cheek,
Was pale disease, and meagre penury.
Then, loath'd, deserted, to her life's last pang
In bitterness of soul she curs'd in vain
Her proud betrayer, curs'd her fatal charms,
And perish'd in the streets from whence she sprung.

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