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The Corn Law Rhymes (1833)

Mr. Elliott is the poet of an iron of age. His style is nervous, and his expression forcible ; his feelings stern and energetic. He is the Crabbe of the Manufacturing Population, and essentially the Poet of the Poor. His writing, in vigour and condensation, approaches more nearly to the true English style of Defoe and Swift than to that of any modern poet but he is deficient in one essential requisite of a poet-imagination. He describes a scene exactly as he sees it, and his pathetic poetry is like an auctioneer's catalogue of miseries; for instance--

The Death Feast

The birth-day, or the wedding-day,
Let happier mourners keep :
To Death my festal vows I pay,
And try in vain to weep.

My father died, my mother died,
Four orphans poor, were we ;
My brother John worked hard, and tried
To smile on Jane and me.

But work grew scarce, while bread grew dear,
And wages lessen'd, too ;
For Irish hordes were bidders here,
Our half-paid work to do.

Yet still we strove with failing breath,
And sinking cheek, to save
Consumptive Jane from early death
Then join'd her in the grave.

His watery hand in mine I took,
And kiss'd him till he slept ;
O, still I see his dying look !
He tried to smile, and wept !

I bought his coffin with my bed,
My gown bought earth and prayer ;
I pawn'd my mother's ring for bread--
I pawn'd my father's chair.

My Bible yet remains to sell,
And yet unsold shall be ;
But language fails my woes to tell--
Even crumbs were scarce with me,

I sold poor Jane's linnet then,
It cost a groat a-year ;
I sold John's hen, and miss'd the hen,
When eggs were selling dear :

For autumn nights seem'd wintry cold,
While seldom blazed my fire,
And eight times eight no more I sold
When eggs were getting higher.

But still I glean the moor and heath ;
I wash, they say, with skill ;
And workhouse-bread ne'er cross'd my teeth
I trust it never will.

But his strength of expression and honest of thought will be best shown by the following extract from "The Wanderer Departed," a short poem, which originally appeared in the New Monthly Magazine. He here describes the state of the labouring population of a village where the common has been, inclosed.

Where is now the hind
Who lean'd on his own strength, his heart and mind ?
Where is the matron, with her busy brow ?
Their sheep, where are they ? and their famous cow ?
Their strutting game-cock, with his many queens ?
Their glowing hollyoaks, and winter greens ?
The chubby lad, that cheer'd them with his look,
And shared his breakfast with the home-bred rook ?
The blooming girls, that scour'd the snow-white pail,
Then wak'd with joy the echoes of the vale,
And, laden homewards, near tbe sparkling rill,
Cropp'd the first rose that blush'd beneath the hill ?
All vanish'd--with their rights, their hopes, their lands,
The shoulder-shaking grasp of hearts and hands,
The good old joke, applauded still as new ;
Tlie wond'rous printed tale, which must be true ;
And the stout ale, that show'd the matron's skill,
For, not to be improv'd, it mended still !
Now, lo ! the young look base, as grey-beard guile !
The very children seem afraid to smile !
But not afraid to scowl, with early hate,
At would-be greatness, or the greedy great ;
For they who fling the poor man's worth away,
Root out security, and plant dismay.

We should not do justice to this author, however much we may differ from him on the subject of the Corn Laws, without quoting one beautiful passage from his poem, " The Ranter," as an example of the high moral and religious feeling which pervade all his Works.

Miles Gordon sleeps; his six days' labour done,
He dreams of Sunday, verdant fields, and prayer ;
Oh, rise, blest morn, unclouded ! Let thy son
Shine on the artisan--thy purest air
Breathe on the bread-tax'd labourer's deep despair !

Poor sons of toil ! I grudge them not the breeze
That plays with Sabbath flowers, the clouds that play
With Sabbath winds, the hum of Sabbath bees,
The Sabbath walk, the skylark's Sabbath lay,
The silent sunshine of the Sabbath day.

Those of our readers who may be curious on literary subjects, and wish to know the manners of the man whose mind they perceive in his writings, will be pleased to leam that Mr. Elliott is that rara avis among poets--a man of common sense--that being engaged in mercantile pursuits, he devotes himself to business, and does not rely for comfort or subsistence on the precarious income derived from literary pursuits.


From the NSW newspaper the The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Tuesday 4 June 1833 p. 4.

Australian newspapers published songs and poems of many kinds. This article about the poetic works of the "Corn-Law Rhymer" Ebenezer Elliott published in Sheffield in 1833 show how broad the taste of that poetry could be. Perhaps Frank the Poet read this article? The political stance taken by Elliott in Britain in dealing with the glaring inequality, unfairness and inhumanity of the austerity based economic doctrines of the industrial revolution was certainly one we can trace in early vernacular Australian poetry and song. From such traces comes a lasting tradition.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory