1796
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Labouring Poor. An Elegy.

The Telegraph (28 September 1796).

M.


27 octosyllabic quatrains, signed "M., Wellclose Square, Sept. 23, 1796." This one of the large number of poems on rural poverty written in the 1790s. It differs from most imitations of Gray's Elegy, however, in taking a distinctly political and class-centered view of its subject — the poet makes a point of including urban laborers and soldiers among the "labouring poor," and lays the cause of their suffering at the door of William Pitt, who by raising taxes to support the military effort against France was putting the bare necessities of life beyond the reach of many: "Here too vile war's destructive rage, | O'erturns the manufact'ring dome: | And those whom peaceful trade engage, | Are kill'd abroad, or starv'd at home."



Hard is the lot of those who toil,
From morn to night throughout the year;
For tho' they till a fruitful soil,
No comforts now their labour cheer.

Plenty with them no more is found,
No more with wholesome viands fed;
The hand that plows and sows the ground,
Can scarce obtain its daily bread.

The village where contentment smil'd,
Is overcast with cheerless gloom;
And joys that labour once beguil'd,
To want and penury give room.

Ev'n sober industry and care,
The cottage bliss insure no more!
For now the peasant in despair,
Sees the gaunt wolf beset his door.

Cheerless at dawn to work he goes,
Cheerless returns at latest eve:
Nor meets the partner of his woes,
But o'er their helpless babes to grieve.

On his incessant toil depend,
Their food and raiment, house and fire;
Yet all to find without a friend,
Ah how inadequate his hire!

All fails, if sickness be his fate;
He boasts no little store of wealth:
No balmy comforts on him wait;
No hand presents the cup of health.

His humble lot is hard at best,
And poverty his only meed:
While others are with plenty blest,
He feels the griping hand of need.

For food his craving children cry,
And oft assail the mother's ear;
Alas, in vain! she heaves the sigh,
And sheds the silent secret tears.

Nought now her thrifty hand can spare,
Between the piteous stinted meal:
A scanty pittance is their share,
And pinching hunger oft they feel.

Nor to the peasant's cot alone;
Is pining poverty confin'd:
In cities wretched thousands moan,
To want and misery consign'd.

Here bloated luxury and pride,
The starving wretch regardless views:
Here want to decency's allied,
And mis'ry shews her various hues.

Here too vile war's destructive rage,
O'erturns the manufact'ring dome:
And those whom peaceful trade engage,
Are kill'd abroad, or starv'd at home.

Here oft the poor without employ,
The rich behold in mirth and ease;
Whilst they depriv'd of ev'ry joy,
Feel hunger, cold, and dire disease.

The artist who with patient hand,
Refines the ore, or works the loom;
Sinks midst the splendour of the land,
An early victim to the tomb.

And widow'd mothers, orphans dear,
And bleak misfortune's downcast train,
A dismal group forlorn appear,
Meek drudging sufferers of pain.

And all the hardy sons of toil,
Who once were happy, bold, and free;
In sorrow cultivate the soil,
Now forc'd to beg for charity.

Ah ye who neither toil nor spin,
Ye drones amidst the busy hive;
These are the men your battles win,
And by their labours 'tis ye thrive.

Think that on their laborious hands,
Depends the welfare of the state;
That by their strength it falls or stands;
Yet stern necessity's their fate.

In summer's heat and winter's cold,
Faintly their task of duty's spend:
Feeble the hands of young and old,
Life half-sustain'd — half cloth'd, half fed.

The savage in his native wild,
Naked, and roaming for his prey;
Who boasts no laws nor customs mild,
Is happier by far than they.

E'en from his home the negro torn,
By the vile bart'ring Christian knave;
And o'er the rude Atlantic borne,
To live and die an exil'd slave;

Is scarce more wretched and distress'd,
Than Britain's once most happy poor;
Who now by various ills oppress'd,
Their hapless lot in vain deplore.

Ye blund'ring politicians blush,
And know proud Statesmen to your shame;
'Tis your mad schemes the people crush,
And for their wrongs 'tis you they blame.

Dazzled with grandeur's gaudy blaze,
Ye seek but to support the crown;
Nor heed while basking in its rays,
That taxes weigh the nation down.

But oh! ye good, ye wise, humane;
While venal Senates would enslave,
'Ere yet they bind the galling chain,
Step forward, and your country save!

And make, oh! make the poor your care:
Let them by honest labour live;
Enjoy as erst their frugal fare,
And bless the gods for all they give.

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