Everyone of course loves to investigate appearances of the name of Robin Hood in medieval court records. One of these days, it might finally be proven who the “real” Robin Hood was by combing through these patchy records of medieval England.
Yet Robin Hood, whether he was real or not, is significant because he is a symbol. So, appropriations of his name in later centuries, by foundlings, Anti-Corn Law Activists, or angry letter writers, are significant because they are simply one means of highlighting the longevity of the legend.
Below is the text of a poem entitled “The Vision”, written by a man who called himself Robin Hood, which appeared in The Penny Satirist in 1841. Victorian newspapers and magazines, particularly those which catered to a working-class readership, often solicited poems from aspiring writers.
The Penny Satirist, and its sister magazine, The Satirist, were quite controversial in their day. They devoted themselves to exposing the scandals of the aristocracy and upper middle classes, as well as aiming to offer a working-class radical critique of contemporary political issues. Issuing from the presses of Chartist newspaper publishers, made it one of the less “respectable” Chartist-sympathizing papers.
The Penny Satirist ran between 1837 and 1846, after which its popularity as a satirical journal was eclipsed by the bourgeois-radical magazine, Punch.
Clearly, the name of Robin Hood here, as it was in centuries past, is still being used as a symbol of resistance against an oppressive elite.
I look’d—and the Sons of Pride stalk’d past,
In their gauds and glittering sheen;
But stormy passions and baffled hopes
In their restless eyes were seen!—
And again I look’d—and a phantom ship
O’er a dark and shoreless sea,
Was bearing them on, while the arch-fiend’s voice
Yell’d out—“For Eternity!”
Then the vision changed—and methought I saw
A blissful valley trod,
By all who with meek contrite hearts,
Walk humbly with their God!
Down a beautiful vista lighted up
With unearthly splendours came,
The mingling music of seraph’s harps,
And songs of loud acclaim!
As nature with mental strife o’erpress’d
The chains of slumber broke,
A still small voice from viewless lips,
In solemn sweetness spoke:—
“Remember the phantom ship—and beware
The doom to which pride condemns,
And school thyself to become as the meek,
Whose jewels are sacred gems!”
Leeds, March, 1841. Robin Hood.
Citation: Robin Hood, ‘The Vision’, The Penny Satirist, 17 April 1841, 3.
Further Reading: Mike Sanders, ‘No Laughing Matter: Chartism and the Limits of Satire’, in Nineteenth-Century Radical Traditions, ed. by Joseph Bristow, Josephine McDonagh (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 21–36.
Although in the marketing for our edition we have designated it as a novel, Southey’s text should be read more as a romance, a curious blend of the Gothic (which predominates whenever the outlaws leave the safety of Sherwood) and the pastoral, for in Sherwood an outlaw’s life is idyllic and divorced from the cares of the outside world.
In Southey’s text, the usual stock characters from Robin Hood tales can be found: Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, the Bishop of Hereford; there are also several new characters, many of whom are taken from early modern plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641).
In keeping with previous portrayals of the outlaw legend, Robin Hood and Maid Marian are in love. Yet they are star-crossed lovers: Marian is the daughter of the wicked Baron Fitzosborne—the man who murdered the good Harold’s father—and the Baron, the main villain of the tale, naturally objects to his daughter’s marrying an outlaw.
With such an impediment to their match, Robin kidnaps Marian when a jousting tournament is held at the Baron’s castle. The pair of them escape to Sherwood and immediately marry each other, presumably by Friar Tuck, although the marriage scene is not recorded in the novel and we jump to the post-nuptial feast scene.
After feasting on venison and ale—Southey has clearly done his Robin Hood homework—Robin asks for music to be played. What follows is the first of many instances throughout the novel where the young, barely 16-year-old Southey, exercises his budding poetical talents. In praise of the union between Robin and Marian, the Sherwood minstrel sings the following ballad:
Behold yon elm high towering lift his head
How brightly his foliage and how cool his shade
His branches wide and towering how they spread
And cast a grateful shadow o’er the glade.
Yet though he lift his head luxuriant high
And proudly seems to threat the neighbouring sky
Useless he flourishes there barren stands
Till doom’d to perish by the woodman’s hand.
Yet should some tender joy-inspiring wine
From some robuster tree that seeks support
Round his base trunk her circling arms entwine
The elm with pendant clusters black we see
The baron once now rich with choicest
Useless and barren were the elm alone
The vine unaided barren too had grown
Mutual assistance each to the other goes
And each by mutual kindness friended lives
Emblem expressive this of human life
The elm the husband and the vine the wife
How blest indeed the faces who truly know
The never ending bliss of wedded love.
Boudeville ended and received the applause of the whole company. Come Aeglamour, said Little John, try your skill and [illegible] happiness of the life we lead here. Were you once to experience the pleasures we enjoy, turning to Richard, you would love to die in the forest of merry Sherwood what are all the pleasures of a court to the pure entertainment of a country life! Richard was preparing to answer him when Aeglamour arose and began
Rises now with orient ray
Bright the gold on the orb of day
Aw’d by his effulgent light
Swiftly they the shades of night
On the leaves with silver hue
Glittering shines the pearly dew.
Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes
And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.
What pleasures can the palace yield
Equal to these woodlands give
How blissfully the outlaws live.
Who roams at will [o’er] field and hill
How happily dwell we in the wood
And o’er the flowery field
How happy live we in the wood.
Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.
The deer with spreading antlers crowned
Stalks stately o’er the bower.
The bowman fits his dart
And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart
He falls upon the ground
We hail the prize with choral strain
Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale
List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale
What pleasures can the palace yield?
Now we with sober mien comes
And darkness hides the sky
The labour of the day is done
And home the outlaws hie.
The cheerful dance and minstrels sing
The pleasures of the time prolong
We beat the ground with skilful [illegible]
With skill we separate with skill we meet
The wholesome beverage goes around
At last by calm repose the happy day is crown’d
What pleasures can the palace yield?
Low shouts of applause proclaimed the universal approbation. This is the life, said Robin Hood turning to Marian, this is the life we lead. You have exchanged pomp and pageantry for the wild uncultivated pleasures of simple nature. But they are pleasures which art can never equal. I have exchanged a life of trouble and of care replied Marian sweetly smiling for one of happiness of liberty of love. She looked tenderly upon her husband and blush’d. Robin kiss’d her to hide it. In the meantime Richard enquired of Little John who sat next to him the manner in which Marian had been so successfully carried off.[i]
Mark and I are, to put it mildly, very excited at the prospect of seeing Southey’s unpublished novel finally in book form. For now, let’s hope that this ‘sneak preview’ of it has whetted your appetites.
In the meantime, see some of my work on other eighteenth century portrayals of Robin Hood:
Rosemary Mitchell argues that during the eighteenth century, artists and writers when representing the medieval period did not strive for historical authenticity but instead sought to present a neoclassical or Shakespearean view of the past. Classical imagery is present in some literary representations of Robin Hood from the eighteenth century. In a previous post for this website, it was pointed out that Joseph Addison (1672-1719) thought that Robin Hood was equal to classical heroes such as Achilles and Caesar. The “classicisation” of Robin Hood is even stronger in two mid-eighteenth-century poems entitled “An Invitation to Robin Hood”and “Robin Hood’s Answer” (1742).
These two Robin Hood poems appeared in John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands(1742). Winstanley (c.1677-1750) was born in Ireland, but he is a minor figure in the eighteenth-century literary world, and virtually nothing is known of his life. However, there is a good chance that the poems were not written by Winstanley, as the subtitle indicates that several writers contributed to the volume. His collection should therefore be viewed as one of the many poetic miscellanies that were published throughout the period. As Robin Hood scholars are unlikely to have come across this poem before, it is transcribed below in full. The original spelling, italicisation, and capitalisation of each word in the original book are retained, with the exception of long s [∫].
“An Invitation to Robin Hood”
SIR, Thursday next, the Archers dine,
On Round of beef, if not Sir Loin;
Though Round suits best, at B—r’s House,
A Glass to drink, and to carouse,
And is, to Marks-men, you’ll allow,
For each his Arrow, and his Bow,
Much fitter to determine Lots;
The Center shewing nearest Shots:
The Day then, Sir, to celebrate,
And crown each Archer’s lucky Fate,
The Muse your Company bespeaks,
To shoot, at least, for Ale and Cakes;
And, Sir, whoever wins the Prize,
To do him Justice to the Skies.
“Robin Hood’s Answer”
Untouch’d by Phoebus’ scorching Rays,
And his poetick Fire,
Victorious Laurel, not the Bays,
Is all my Soul’s Desire.
Soon will the rash Apollo know,
The Danger of inviting,
An Archer armed with his Bow,
And Impliments for fighting.
The Round of Beef with all it’s [sic] Charms,
Will small Protection yield,
Against an Archer’s conquering Arms,
Tho’ turn’d into a shield.
His Butt he’ll make it, which shall feel,
The Marks of his Disdain,
His Arrows tipt with Blades of Steel,
Shall pierce thro’ ev’ry Vein.
The Vict’ry gain’d, he scorns to boast,
For gen’rous Deeds renown’d;
Then to the Round around we’ll toast
‘Till all the World turns round.
Thus writeth in a merry mood,
Your humble Servant Robin Hood.
The classical imagery in the poem is self-evident: Apollo (also known as Phoebus), is the Greek god of music, poetry, art, and archery, and he is holding a feast for all legendary archers. The feast will feature an archery contest in which all of the bowmen will test their skills. Winstanley will also be in attendance. He desires Robin Hood to be present, so Winstanley writes him an invitation. Robin responds that he will attend, but he will come to win the contest, outshining even Apollo himself. After Robin has won the contest, he will then feast with the rest of the archers.
There are several reasons why neoclassicism became prevalent in art, literature, and architecture in Britain during the eighteenth century. Joseph M. Levine argues that it was the result of several factors: antiquity was viewed as a “refined,” “polished,” and “civilized” age in which men enjoyed political liberty. This was perfect for England’s polite and commercial elites who viewed themselves as the vanguard of civilisation and liberty. Moreover, classicism was linked to ideals of heroism during the eighteenth century. Winstanley and even the “Augustan” Addison believed that Robin was a hero, one who surpassed even Apollo in his skill and bravery.
In general, the ancient Greeks did not consume great quantities of meat. The references to beef, in contrast to the classical imagery present in the play, lend an air of Englishness to the poems. Perhaps this is Winstanley’s attempt to provide continuity with earlier Robin Hood texts. The outlaws in both the medieval and post-medieval tradition are frequently seen feasting. Feasting occurs in the first and seventh ‘fyttes’ of A Gest of Robyn Hode, and illustrates the truth, honor, and fellowship of the outlaws’ society.
Admittedly, it is venison that the outlaws eat in earlier Robin Hood texts. The consumption of beef in Winstanley’s connects the recurrent motif of feasting in the Robin Hood tradition with eighteenth-century British patriotism. During the eighteenth century in which Britain was involved in many wars and a number of these were fought either directly or indirectly against France, beef became a patriotic symbol. It was assumed that the beef fed to English soldiers made them hardy and strong, in contrast to the slim and underfed continental soldiers. The image of the strong Englishman fed on a diet of beef appeared numerous times in contemporary popular culture. In Henry Fielding’s very popular play The Grub Street Opera (1731) contained a patriotic ballad entitled The Roast Beef of Old England. The same theme that was taken up by William Hogarth in an eponymous painting completed in 1748. Fielding’s song was soon set to music and became a military anthem. Later in the century, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, the portly/stocky John Bull, one of England’s national symbols, was often depicted as gorging himself on beef.
Why Winstanley chose to author this poem is unclear. As so little is known of his life, his reasons can only be speculated at. Perhaps he had grown up reading a version of the frequently reprinted eighteenth-century ballad collections known as Robin Hood’s Garland or The English Archer. As a whole, Winstanley’s book appears to have received a favorable reception from some major eighteenth-century cultural figures, such as Jonathan Swift, Colley Cibber, and Alexander Pope. Miscellany collections of poetry, such as Winstanley’s volume, were extremely popular during the eighteenth century. They were not published in order to create a canon of poetic taste but instead were published to provide a snapshot of the popular literary tastes of the moment. And this is why their content is often diverse, explaining why the text of a cheap seventeenth-century broadside ballad such as A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour (which also features a Christmastime feast on beef) appears alongside poetry written by John Dryden in the same volume.
In conclusion, R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor were quite dismissive of texts from this period, and they included one eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballad in their anthology, for instance, only to illustrate what in their words was
“the imaginative poverty as well as stylistic debasement that overtook the legend of the greenwood during the course of the eighteenth century.” 
Similarly, while Stephen Knight’s research is substantial concerning earlier texts and post nineteenth-century sources, there is still a relative neglect of eighteenth-century works in all three of his monographs. Thus Robin Hood’s appearance in eighteenth-century texts certainly is an area which requires more research.
 Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.
 John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands (London, 1742), 210-212.
 See Joseph M. Levine, “Why Neoclassicism? Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England,”Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 25, no. 1 (2002): 75-101; and Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
 See A. D. S. Smith, “Patriotism and New-Classicism: The ‘Historical Revival’ in French and English Painting and Sculpture, 1746-1800.” PhD diss., University of London, 1987.
 Basdeo, Stephen, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018); Douglas Gray, “The Robin Hood Poems,” in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999), 3-37 at 26-27. See also Stephen Knight, “Feasts in the Forest,” in Telling Tales and Crafting Books: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. Ohlgren, eds. Alexander L. Kaufman, Shaun F. D. Hughes, and Dorsey Armstrong. Festschriften, Occasional Papers, and Lectures XXIV (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2016), 161-75.
 For example, the wars that Britain fought either directly or indirectly against France include The Great Northern War (1700-1721), The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Jacobite Rebellion (1715), Drummer’s War (1721-25), The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), The Second Carnatic War (1749-1754), The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), The War of American Independence (1776-1783), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).
 ”A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour,” in The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems, Containing a Variety of New Translations of the Ancient Poets, Together with Several Original Poems by the Most Eminent Hands. Publish’d by Mr. Dryden (London: J. Tonson, 1716), 346-352.
 R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, eds., Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd ed. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 183.
Image Credits: Frontispiece to John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally (Dublin: Powell, 1742). Digitised by University of Michigan and Made Available via The Internet Archive.
The following poem, written anonymously and titled simply as ‘Robin Hood’, appeared in The Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle in 1828.
The newspaper, printed in Calcutta during the rule of the East India Company, went through a number of name changes during its run (which was not unusual for a newspaper at this time). Its alternative names were:
Oriental Literary Observer.
Oriental Observer and Literary Chronicle.
As some of the names indicate, the paper had a literary focus and often published anonymous pieces of poetry.
‘Tis merry, ‘tis merry, in green Sherwood,
To wind the horn,
When breaks the morn,
O’er the leafy bed of bold Robin Hood.
And the welkin sounds,
And the roebuck bounds,
Through copse, and fallow, and brake, and flood.
The chase is o’er, the merry men all
In their Lincoln green,
Are gather’d at e’en,
To tell of the gallant roe-buck’s fall:
And the bowl is crown’d,
And the toast goes round,
To the grey goose shaft and the bugle call.
‘Robin Hood’, The Oriental Observer, 3 February 1828, p. 407.
English authorities always seems to have had a harsh attitude towards its destitute and homeless people, or vagrants. At the height of the Black Death in medieval England, when labour was becoming scarce and many people, understandably, were falling ill, the Ordinance of Labourers made ‘idleness’ a criminal offence. The penalty for being as an idle vagrant was whipping or branding.
During the reign of Henry VIII, vagabonds were again targeted by lawmakers. The Vagabonds Act (1530) decreed that
“Beggars who are old and incapable of working receive a beggar’s licence. On the other hand, [there should be] whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then they are to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to serve where they have lived the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’. For the second arrest for vagabondage the whipping is to be repeated and half the ear sliced off; but for the third relapse the offender is to be executed as a hardened criminal and enemy of the common weal.”
More laws against vagabonds were passed in 1547, 1572, and 1597. The harsh laws against vagabondage occurred at an interesting time in English history: it was a period when feudalism—through which serfs worked for and owed loyalty to the lords in return for protection—was breaking down and capitalism was emerging. The old social structures, with kings, lords, barons, and knights, still remained, of course. Yet whereas at the height of the middle ages the upper classes felt some kind of social responsibility to those beneath them, in the new capitalist, individualist world, the elites no longer felt obligated to care for society’s poorest.
And of course, there was no attempt to address the causes of vagrancy. The authorities merely saw it as a problem which had to be dealt with through harsh measures such as branding. The Henrician and Elizabethan laws against vagrancy had a minor update during Queen Anne’s reign, but the punishments remained largely the same.
By the time that the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century, the power and social pre-eminence of the nobility had been displaced by the rising bourgeoisie. Where the lords in a feudal world might have felt some kind of obligation to the poor and needy, by the Georgian period, contract had replaced custom and, in the words of Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848),
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
There had indeed always been poor people, but poverty had a new sting in its tail: people were now poor in a capitalist world in which, as Marx rightly observed, the paternalist bonds between the classes existed no more. Poets in the late eighteenth century were observed the poverty around. William Wordsworth was one such poet who was moved to write a heart-rending ‘biographical’ poem of the plight of a homeless woman living in the late eighteenth century (the poem does not refer to any particular historical figure but was from Wordsworth’s imagination—vagrancy was not an uncommon experience for many at the time).
The poem was published in Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume was envisaged as an experiment—it marked a shift away from the pompous ‘Augustan’ poetry of the eighteenth century, which dealt with great men and big events, to a poetry which could be intelligible to common people. Most of the poems in the collection deal not with great men but with commoners as the subject. Even the use of the word ‘ballad’ in the title evokes the popular poetry of the plebeian classes.
The poem is meant to evoke feelings of tenderness and kindness to those less fortunate, and in this, at least, Wordsworth succeeded. In the words of Joseph Devey, writing in A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873):
It would appear that Wordsworth designed, by the instrumentality of the lowest ranks of society, to erect a poetic temple, at the shrine of which the most selfish hearts should be humanized, and a feeling of love kept alive, reciprocating and reciprocated, between the rich and the poor, the politically great and the socially defenceless, for ever. ‘Life is the vital energy of love;’ and as long as the two extremes of society stood looking at each other with feelings of repulsion, the end of existence could not be realised. His verse was to become the medium of identifying the loftiest purposes of his art with the purest aims of Christianity.
Yet things took a while to get better: the Speemhamland System of dole relief and wage subsidies did attempt to deal some of the causes of homelessness, but another vagrancy act was passed in 1824 which made it an offence to beg for money or to sleep rough.
And the Act remains in force to this day in England (though thankfully whipping is no longer part of the punishment, merely a fine):
In 2016, the Vagrancy Act (1824) was used nearly 3,000 times to punish poor rough sleepers.
William Wordsworth, The Female Vagrant (1798)
By Derwent’s side my Father’s cottage stood,
(The Woman thus her artless story told)
One field, a flock, and what the neighbouring flood
Supplied, to him were more than mines of gold.
Light was my sleep; my days in transport roll’d:
With thoughtless joy I stretch’d along the shore
My father’s nets, or watched, when from the fold
High o’er the cliffs I led my fleecy store,
A dizzy depth below! his boat and twinkling oar.
My father was a good and pious man,
An honest man by honest parents bred,
And I believe that, soon as I began
To lisp, he made me kneel beside my bed,
And in his hearing there my prayers I said:
And afterwards, by my good father taught,
I read, and loved the books in which I read;
For books in every neighbouring house I sought,
And nothing to my mind a sweeter pleasure brought.
Can I forget what charms did once adorn
My garden, stored with pease, and mint, and thyme,
And rose and lilly for the sabbath morn?
The sabbath bells, and their delightful chime;
The gambols and wild freaks at shearing time;
My hen’s rich nest through long grass scarce espied;
The cowslip-gathering at May’s dewy prime;
The swans, that, when I sought the water-side,
From far to meet me came, spreading their snowy pride.
The staff I yet remember which upbore
The bending body of my active sire;
His seat beneath the honeyed sycamore
When the bees hummed, and chair by winter fire;
When market-morning came, the neat attire
With which, though bent on haste, myself I deck’d;
My watchful dog, whose starts of furious ire,
When stranger passed, so often I have check’d;
The red-breast known for years, which at my casement peck’d.
The suns of twenty summers danced along,—
Ah! little marked, how fast they rolled away:
Then rose a mansion proud our woods among,
And cottage after cottage owned its sway,
No joy to see a neighbouring house, or stray
Through pastures not his own, the master took;
My Father dared his greedy wish gainsay;
He loved his old hereditary nook,
And ill could I the thought of such sad parting brook.
But, when he had refused the proffered gold,
To cruel injuries he became a prey,
Sore traversed in whate’er he bought and sold:
His troubles grew upon him day by day,
Till all his substance fell into decay.
His little range of water was denied;
All but the bed where his old body lay,
All, all was seized, and weeping, side by side,
We sought a home where we uninjured might abide.
Can I forget that miserable hour,
When from the last hill-top, my sire surveyed,
Peering above the trees, the steeple tower,
That on his marriage-day sweet music made?
Till then he hoped his bones might there be laid,
Close by my mother in their native bowers:
Bidding me trust in God, he stood and prayed,—
I could not pray: — through tears that fell in showers,
Glimmer’d our dear-loved home, alas! no longer ours!
There was a youth whom I had loved so long,
That when I loved him not I cannot say.
‘Mid the green mountains many and many a song
We two had sung, like little birds in May.
When we began to tire of childish play
We seemed still more and more to prize each other:
We talked of marriage and our marriage day;
And I in truth did love him like a brother,
For never could I hope to meet with such another.
His father said, that to a distant town
He must repair, to ply the artist’s trade.
What tears of bitter grief till then unknown!
What tender vows our last sad kiss delayed!
To him we turned: — we had no other aid.
Like one revived, upon his neck I wept,
And her whom he had loved in joy, he said
He well could love in grief: his faith he kept;
And in a quiet home once more my father slept.
Four years each day with daily bread was blest,
By constant toil and constant prayer supplied.
Three lovely infants lay upon my breast;
And often, viewing their sweet smiles, I sighed,
And knew not why. My happy father died
When sad distress reduced the children’s meal:
Thrice happy! that from him the grave did hide
The empty loom, cold hearth, and silent wheel,
And tears that flowed for ills which patience could not heal.
‘Twas a hard change, an evil time was come;
We had no hope, and no relief could gain.
But soon, with proud parade, the noisy drum
Beat round, to sweep the streets of want and pain.
My husband’s arms now only served to strain
Me and his children hungering in his view:
In such dismay my prayers and tears were vain:
To join those miserable men he flew;
And now to the sea-coast, with numbers more, we drew.
There foul neglect for months and months we bore,
Nor yet the crowded fleet its anchor stirred.
Green fields before us and our native shore,
By fever, from polluted air incurred,
Ravage was made, for which no knell was heard.
Fondly we wished, and wished away, nor knew,
‘Mid that long sickness, and those hopes deferr’d,
That happier days we never more must view:
The parting signal streamed, at last the land withdrew,
But from delay the summer calms were past.
On as we drove, the equinoctial deep
Ran mountains-high before the howling blast.
We gazed with terror on the gloomy sleep
Of them that perished in the whirlwind’s sweep,
Untaught that soon such anguish must ensue,
Our hopes such harvest of affliction reap,
That we the mercy of the waves should rue.
We reached the western world, a poor, devoted crew.
Oh! dreadful price of being to resign
All that is dear in being! better far
In Want’s most lonely cave till death to pine,
Unseen, unheard, unwatched by any star;
Or in the streets and walks where proud men are,
Better our dying bodies to obtrude,
Than dog-like, wading at the heels of war,
Protract a curst existence, with the brood
That lap (their very nourishment!) their brother’s blood.
The pains and plagues that on our heads came down,
Disease and famine, agony and fear,
In wood or wilderness, in camp or town,
It would thy brain unsettle even to hear.
All perished — all, in one remorseless year,
Husband and children! one by one, by sword
And ravenous plague, all perished: every tear
Dried up, despairing, desolate, on board
A British ship I waked, as from a trance restored.
Peaceful as some immeasurable plain
By the first beams of dawning light impress’d,
In the calm sunshine slept the glittering main.
The very ocean has its hour of rest,
That comes not to the human mourner’s breast.
Remote from man, and storms of mortal care,
A heavenly silence did the waves invest;
I looked and looked along the silent air,
Until it seemed to bring a joy to my despair.
Ah! how unlike those late terrific sleeps!
And groans, that rage of racking famine spoke,
Where looks inhuman dwelt on festering heaps!
The breathing pestilence that rose like smoke!
The shriek that from the distant battle broke!
The mine’s dire earthquake, and the pallid host
Driven by the bomb’s incessant thunder-stroke
To loathsome vaults, where heart-sick anguish toss’d,
Hope died, and fear itself in agony was lost!
Yet does that burst of woe congeal my frame,
When the dark streets appeared to heave and gape,
While like a sea the storming army came,
And Fire from Hell reared his gigantic shape,
And Murder, by the ghastly gleam, and Rape
Seized their joint prey, the mother and the child!
But from these crazing thoughts my brain, escape!
—For weeks the balmy air breathed soft and mild,
And on the gliding vessel Heaven and Ocean smiled.
Some mighty gulph of separation past,
I seemed transported to another world:—
A thought resigned with pain, when from the mast
The impatient mariner the sail unfurl’d,
And whistling, called the wind that hardly curled
The silent sea. From the sweet thoughts of home,
And from all hope I was forever hurled.
For me — farthest from earthly port to roam
Was best, could I but shun the spot where man might come.
And oft, robb’d of my perfect mind, I thought
At last my feet a resting-place had found:
Here will I weep in peace, (so fancy wrought,)
Roaming the illimitable waters round;
Here watch, of every human friend disowned,
All day, my ready tomb the ocean-flood—
To break my dream the vessel reached its bound:
And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined, and wanted food.
By grief enfeebled was I turned adrift,
Helpless as sailor cast on desart rock;
Nor morsel to my mouth that day did lift,
Nor dared my hand at any door to knock.
I lay, where with his drowsy mates, the cock
From the cross timber of an out-house hung;
How dismal tolled, that night, the city clock!
At morn my sick heart hunger scarcely stung,
Nor to the beggar’s language could I frame my tongue.
So passed another day, and so the third:
Then did I try, in vain, the crowd’s resort,
In deep despair by frightful wishes stirr’d,
Near the sea-side I reached a ruined fort:
There, pains which nature could no more support,
With blindness linked, did on my vitals fall;
Dizzy my brain, with interruption short
Of hideous sense; I sunk, nor step could crawl,
And thence was borne away to neighbouring hospital.
Recovery came with food: but still, my brain
Was weak, nor of the past had memory.
I heard my neighbours, in their beds, complain
Of many things which never troubled me;
Of feet still bustling round with busy glee,
Of looks where common kindness had no part,
Of service done with careless cruelty,
Fretting the fever round the languid heart,
And groans, which, as they said, would make a dead man start.
These things just served to stir the torpid sense,
Nor pain nor pity in my bosom raised.
Memory, though slow, returned with strength; and thence
Dismissed, again on open day I gazed,
At houses, men, and common light, amazed.
The lanes I sought, and as the sun retired,
Came, where beneath the trees a faggot blazed;
The wild brood saw me weep, my fate enquired,
And gave me food, and rest, more welcome, more desired.
My heart is touched to think that men like these,
The rude earth’s tenants, were my first relief:
How kindly did they paint their vagrant ease!
And their long holiday that feared not grief,
For all belonged to all, and each was chief.
No plough their sinews strained; on grating road
No wain they drove, and yet, the yellow sheaf
In every vale for their delight was stowed:
For them, in nature’s meads, the milky udder flowed.
Semblance, with straw and panniered ass, they made
Of potters wandering on from door to door:
But life of happier sort to me pourtrayed,
And other joys my fancy to allure;
The bag-pipe dinning on the midnight moor
In barn uplighted, and companions boon
Well met from far with revelry secure,
In depth of forest glade, when jocund June
Rolled fast along the sky his warm and genial moon.
But ill it suited me, in journey dark
O’er moor and mountain, midnight theft to hatch;
To charm the surly house-dog’s faithful bark,
Or hang on tiptoe at the lifted latch;
The gloomy lantern, and the dim blue match,
The black disguise, the warning whistle shrill,
And ear still busy on its nightly watch,
Were not for me, brought up in nothing ill;
Besides, on griefs so fresh my thoughts were brooding still.
What could I do, unaided and unblest?
Poor Father! gone was every friend of thine:
And kindred of dead husband are at best
Small help, and, after marriage such as mine,
With little kindness would to me incline.
Ill was I then for toil or service fit:
With tears whose course no effort could confine,
By high-way side forgetful would I sit
Whole hours, my idle arms in moping sorrow knit.
I lived upon the mercy of the fields,
And oft of cruelty the sky accused;
On hazard, or what general bounty yields,
Now coldly given, now utterly refused.
The fields I for my bed have often used:
But, what afflicts my peace with keenest ruth
Is, that I have my inner self abused,
Foregone the home delight of constant truth,
And clear and open soul, so prized in fearless youth.
I recently came into possession of a book written by Thomas Cooper (1805-92), a famous Chartist activist, which he gave to his friend, the newspaper proprietor and fellow Chartist, John Cleave (1790-1847).
Chartism was the first large-scale working-class political reform movement in Britain who had six demands, which they laid out in their People’s Charter: votes for all men; equally-sized electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that MPs be property owners; payment for M.P.s; annual general elections; and the secret ballot.
Leaders of the movement held mass meetings in public places but the movement was also supported by a great corpus of literature including novels, newspapers and periodicals, poetry, and songs. Most of this literature was written by people who hailed from the working classes.[i]
Thomas Cooper was one such man. He was born in Lincoln in 1805 (he was the childhood friend of Robin Hood novel author, Thomas Miller, also from Lincolnshire) and from a young age was a shoemaker’s apprentice. While he was an apprentice, he educated himself by reading a range of literature including history books, fictional works, and poetry. He excelled in English studies and by the age of 23 became a schoolmaster with a side-job as a journalist. By all accounts he was a fiery man and very passionate about whatever subject he was preaching about, and was in a large part responsible for turning Leicester—where he went after his years at Lincoln—into a Chartist stronghold when he became active in the movement.
And so we come to the book itself. Cooper was passionate about the movement he joined and employed his literary talents to promote its message. In the midst of the General Strike in 1842—a nationwide strike that began in the northern manufacturing districts and spread throughout Britain—Cooper arrived in Hanley, Staffordshire to deliver a speech to workers assembled there and declared that
All labour cease until the People’s Charter becomes the law of the land.
This was incendiary stuff in an era when unions, or ‘combinations’, were legal but members could often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did in the 1830s. Many arrests were made in the aftermath of Cooper’s speech, and Cooper was among those arrested and he was sentenced to two years in gaol for sedition due to his part in the ‘rising’.
It was in gaol that he wrote The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme, which was then published three years later in 1845 after his release. The theme of the poem is taken from the speech which Cooper gave at the meeting: Slaves Toil No More!
Slaves toil no more!—why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?
Slaves, toil no more—to win a pauper’s doom!
And while the millions swear, fell famine’s gloom
Spreads their haggard faces, like a cloud
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:—
How ‘neath its terrors are the tyrants bowed!
Slaves toil no more—to starve!—go forth, and tame the proud![ii]
The poem, written in Spenserian stanzas, in emulation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590–96), sees Cooper exploring various forms of government while conversing with people who had committed suicide throughout history (and who were in purgatory), including Judas Iscariot, Emperor Nero, and the late Lord Castlereagh on what the ideal form of government was—whether it be monarchical, republican, or democratic and in the words of Stephanie Kuduk:
The energy of the poem builds through its strophe and antistrophe movement between descriptions of contemporary political reality and investigations of its historical and philosophical roots. This movement culminates in a final dream vision of a peaceful republican revolution, brought about by the enlightenment of the people through the agency of “Knowledge” and poetry.[iii]
So, where at the beginning of the poem, Cooper referred to his fellow workers as ‘slaves’, the poem at the end has a more upbeat tone:
Spirits, still more rejoice!—for pain and woe
Are gone and universal life doth bloom
With joy!—The dream o’erwrought me to a throe,
Of bliss—and I awoke to find my home
A dungeon,—thence, to ponder whence would come
The day that goodness shall the earth renew,
And Truth’s young light disperse old Error’s gloom,—
When Love shall Hate, and Meekness Pride subdue,—
And when the many cease their slavery to the Few![iv]
The influence of Percy B. Shelley’s earlier poem, The Mask of Anarchy—written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819—comes through in the lines about the many versus the few, of which we repeat the final lines here:
When Cooper was released from prison two years later, he decided to publish the poem. In the preface to the first edition he (quite sarcastically) thanked his government captors for giving him the time to finish a poem which he had been planning to write for a couple of years:
My persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a more robust character to my verses,—though I most assuredly owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other torments,—occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the generally injurious influences of imprisonment.[vi]
Only 500 copies of the first edition were printed. This was not an unusual number of copies printed for a first edition of a work by a (at this point) relatively minor author. Just like publishers do today, authors receive a number of copies of their own works which they can distribute to friends and family gratis. The copy of Cooper’s work which I have was given to his friend John Cleave, and inscribed on the front end paper is the following message:
From the author to his respected friend,
Mr. John Cleave.
Oct. 20th, / 45
John Cleave was a member of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), ‘a major reforming organisation’ which counted among its members radical publishers such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, and of course, Cleave.[vii]
Cleave was also the editor of several newspapers over the course of his career: Cleave’s London Satirist, Cleave’s Penny Gazette, and Cleave’s Penny Police Gazette. His sympathies most definitely lay with the radicals and the Chartists—before striking out on his own, Cleave had collaborated with Henry Hethertington on The Poor Man’s Guardian. He was also a businessman, and was not only a newspaper proprietor but also owned a coffee shop and a book shop, which was based at 1 Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London.
Just like Thomas Cooper, Cleave had also had his own brush with the law. When Cleave’s business was at its height, the Stamp Act was in full swing; this ‘tax on knowledge’ was a duty placed on paper, and newspapers had to pay it if they printed news. Publishers of serialised popular fiction were exempt from paying it, which is why many cheaper ‘news’ papers often combined light entertainment in the form of serialised novels as well as commentary on political and social issues. Yet Cleave continued to publish newspapers without paying the tax, and for this he was imprisoned for short spells in Newgate gaol twice, in 1834 and again in 1836.
Cleave refused to pay the Stamp Tax because, along with believing that all working men and women should have the vote—unusual even among radicals at this point—he also believed that the key to building a democratic society was through the education of the masses, and in this his newspapers had a role to play. The idea that the spread of knowledge would emancipate the working classes is found throughout Cooper’s poem, which is probably why Cooper gave a copy of his book to his ‘respected friend’.
Cleave died in 1847, and it is not known what happened to the many books he possessed. The particular copy I have in my possession made its way across the Atlantic at some point, for I purchased from a bookseller named Ann Kruger in the USA. This is strange as neither Cleave, nor his daughter Lucy, who married Chartist activist Henry Vincent, ever appears to have taken a trip to the USA, although the Vincents’ descendants have now settled in New Zealand. This is what perhaps makes antiques, and books in particular, special: you never know who has ‘thumbed the pages’ before you. Also, we often know of these working-class writers and publishers through their printed works, yet they leave very few physical mementoes behind, so it is nice to know that something Cooper himself touched still survives.
Cooper lived on until 1892, and during this time published several works of prose fiction and poetry. He turned more to religious matters and was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). In later life, by the time that he wrote his autobiography entitled The Life of Thomas Cooper written by Himself (1872), Cooper was still a committed democrat and advocate of social justice, and counselled readers at the end to
If you have any money to spare, give it away to relieve the wretched; they abound on every hand. Give yourself up to your work, and live for that only. Go and sell all you have and follow your Master, and you shall have treasure in heaven.[viii]
[i] See: Mike Sanders, The Poetry of Chartism: Aesthetics, Politics, History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Ian Haywood, ed., The Literature of Struggle: An Anthology of Chartist Fiction, rev. ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ian Haywood, Working Class Fiction: from Chartism to Trainspotting (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).
[ii] Thomas Cooper, The Purgatory of Suicides: A Prison Rhyme (London: Jeremiah How, 1845), p. 1.
[iii] Stephanie Kuduk, ‘Sedition, Chartism, and Epic Poetry in Thomas Cooper’s The Purgatory of Suicides’, Victorian Poetry, 39: 2 (2001), 165–86 (pp. 165–66).