Monday, December 22, 2008

Work - work - work! - a Carlylean Christmas poem from Thomas Hood

In case readers of The Chimes were hankering for more Thomas Carlyle in their Christmas, here's the beginning, and then some more, of Thomas Hood's The Song of the Shirt:

With fingers weary and worn,
  With eyelids heavy and red,
A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
  Plying her needle and thread -
    Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the 'Song of the Shirt!'


"Work — work — work!
  My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
  A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
  A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
  For sometimes falling there!

And there's more, though not a lot more. This was a Christmas poem, in a December 1843 issue of the comic magazine Punch. My understanding is that it was genuinely popular, reprinted many times. The part that really links it to Thomas Carlyle (Past and Present dates from just a few months earlier) is that "Work -- work -- work!" line, echoing Carlyle's emphasis on labor.

The most reductive message of A Christmas Carol (published at the same time as this poem) or The Chimes is "Remember the Poor at Christmas." Punch published something similar every Christmas, by many different poets. I'm going to get out my credit card now and remember the poor.


  1. I like Hood a lot - partly because I have a weakness for puns (unlike many people, I do not think they should be punished) and partly for his combination of social satire and galloping but complex verse forms. Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg, a mock epic of sorts, is one of my favourites. Also his 'Sonnet to Vauxhall', which wonderfully telescopes bad weather, terrible food, crowds, fashion, pretentious talk, and damp squibs into 14 breathless but deathless lines.

  2. Same here - Hood is underappreciated. The Last Man, Miss Kilmansegg. Lots of good, surprising poems.