1766
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Poor Man's Prayer. Addressed to the Earl of Chatham.

The Poor Man's Prayer. Addressed to the Earl of Chatham. An Elegy. By Simon Hedge, a Kentish Labourer.

Rev. William Hayward Roberts


Twenty-five elegiac quatrains signed "Simon Hedge" by William Hayward Roberts, than an assistant master of Eton College. The poor man addresses his petition to William Pitt, just returned to office following the Rockingham administration, and named Lord Chatham. The speaker describes the abject poverty and famine to which he and his family have been reduced by the effects of unregulated trade. The poem takes its stanza and perhaps some of its imagery from Gray's Elegy: "Hard was my fare, and constant was my toil, | Still with the morning's orient light I rose, | Fell'd by the stout oak, or rais'd the lofty pile, | Parch'd in the sun, in dark December froze." While enclosure is not explicitly mentioned, there is perhaps a closer connection to Goldsmith's Deserted Village (1770), which like a number of other works on similar themes was likely influence by this oft-reprinted poem.

Critical Review: "Very pretty and pathetic. The labourer addresses the earl of Chatham (but with what propriety we cannot say) to remove an artificial famine which now prevails, while our fields smile with plenty" 22 (September 1766) 232.

Monthly Review: "This very pathetic elegy cannot be supposed to be, in reality, the work of any Simon Hedge, — any unlettered peasant; for it is not unworthy the pen of a Mason or a Gray. — The subject is at this time so critical, and the publication so seasonable, that our humane Readers will forgive us, if, to second the endeavours of our benevolent Bard, we assist him in wafting some part of the Poor Man's Prayer to other ears, beside those of the right honourable personage to whom it is more immediately addressed" 34 (October 1766) 323.



Amidst the more important toils of state,
The counsels lab'ring in thy patriot soul,
Tho' Europe from thy voice expect her fate,
And thy keen glance extend from pole to pole,

O CHATHAM, nurs'd in ancient virtue's lore,
To these sad strains incline a fav'ring ear;
Think on the GOD, whom Thou, and I adore,
Nor turn unpitying from the Poor Man's Prayer.

Ah me! how blest was once a peasant's life!
No lawless passion swell'd my even breast;
Far from the stormy waves of civil strife,
Sound were my slumbers, and my heart at rest.

I ne'er for guilty, painful pleasures rov'd,
But taught by nature, and by choice to wed,
From all the hamlet cull'd whom best I lov'd,
With her I staid my heart, with her my bed.

To gild her worth I ask'd no wealthy power,
My toil could feed her, and my arm defend;
In youth, or age, in pain, or pleasure's hour,
The same fond husband, father, brother, friend.

And she, the faithful partner of my care,
When ruddy evening streak'd the Western sky,
Look'd towards the uplands, if her mate was there,
Or thro' the beech-wood cast an anxious eye.

Then, careful matron, heap'd the maple board
With savoury herbs, and pick'd the nicer part
From such plain food as Nature could afford,
Ere simple nature was debauch'd by art.

While I, contented with my homely cheer,
Saw round my knees my prattling children play;
And oft with pleas'd attention sat to hear
The little history of their idle day.

But ah! how chang'd the scene! on the cold stones,
Where wont at night to blaze the chearful fire,
Pale famine sits, and counts her naked bones,
Still sighs for food, still pines with vain desire.

My faithful wife with ever-streaming eyes
Hangs on my bosom her dejected head;
My helpless infants raise their feeble cries,
And from their father claim their daily bread.

Dear tender pledges of my honest love,
On that bare bed behold your brother lie,
Three tedious nights with pinching wants he strove,
The fourth, I saw the helpless cherub die.

Nor long shall ye remain. With visage sour
Our tyrant lord commands us from our home;
And arm'd with cruel laws coercive power
Bids me with mine o'er barren mountains roam.

Yet never, CHATHAM, have I pass'd a day
In riot's orgies, or in idle ease;
Ne'er have I sacrific'd to sport and play,
Or wish'd a pamper'd appetite to please.

Hard was my fare, and constant was my toil,
Still with the morning's orient light I rose,
Fell'd by the stout oak, or rais'd the lofty pile,
Parch'd in the sun, in dark December froze.

Is it, that nature with a niggard hand
Withholds her gifts from these once favour'd plains?
Has GOD, in vengeance to a guilty land,
Sent dearth and famine to her lab'ring swains?

Ah, no; yon hill, where daily sweats my brow,
A thousand flocks, a thousand herds adorn;
Yon field, where late I drove the painful plough,
Feels all her acres crown'd with wavy corn.

But what avails, that o'er the furrow'd soil
In autumn's heat the yellow harvests rise,
If artificial want elude my toil,
Untasted plenty wound my craving eyes?

What profits, that at distance I behold
My wealthy neighbour's fragrant smoke ascend,
If still the griping cormorants withhold
The fruits which rain and genial seasons send?

If those fell vipers of the public weal
Yet unrelenting on our bowels prey;
If still the curse of penury we feel,
And in the midst of plenty pine away?

In every port the vessel rides secure,
That wafts our harvest to a foreign shore;
While we the pangs of pressing want endure,
The sons of strangers riot on our store.

O generous CHATHAM, stop these fatal sails,
Once more with outstretch'd arms thy Britons save;
The unheeding crew but waits for fav'ring gales,
O stop them, e'er thy stem Italia's wave.

From thee alone I hope for instant aid,
'Tis thou alone canst save my children's breath;
O deem not little of our cruel need,
O haste to help us, for delay is death.

So may nor spleen, nor envy blast thy name,
Nor voice profane thy patriot acts deride;
Still may'st thou stand the first in honest fame,
Unstung by folly, vanity, or pride.

So may thy languid limbs with strength be brac'd,
And glowing health support thy active soul;
With fair renown thy public virtue grac'd,
Far as thou bad'st Britannia's thunder roll.

Then joy to thee, and to thy children peace,
The grateful hind shall drink from plenty's horn:
And while they share the cultur'd land's increase,
The Poor shall bless the day when PITT was born.

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