S10E3: "The Song of the Shirt" by Thomas Hood

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By Angelina Stanford and Thomas Banks. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

In this tenth season of The Well Read Poem podcast, we are reading six poems about the blessings and curses of labor. Work is a thing we both enjoy and dislike, and some professions are easier for poets to draw inspiration from than others. These poems come from different ages of literary history, and hopefully will leave the reader with a sense of what work has meant to different minds over the course of the centuries. Today's selection is "The Song of the Shirt" by Thomas Hood; poem begins at timestamp 4:25.

The Song of the Shirt

by Thomas Hood

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 the voice of dolorous pitch She sang the "Song of the Shirt!"

"Work! Work! Work! While the cock is crowing aloof! And work—work—work, Till the stars shine through the roof! It's O! to be a slave Along with the barbarous Turk, Where woman has never a soul to save If this is Christian work!

"Work—work—work Till the brain begins to swim, Work—work—work Till the eyes are heavy and dim! Seam, and gusset, and band, Band, and gusset, and seam, Till over the buttons I fall asleep, And sew them on in a dream!

"O, Men with Sisters dear! O, Men! with Mothers and Wives! It is not linen you're wearing out, But human creatures' lives! Stitch—stitch—stitch, In poverty, hunger, and dirt, Sewing at once, with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

"But why do I talk of Death! That Phantom of grisly bone, I hardly fear his terrible shape, It seems so like my own— It seems so like my own, Because of the fasts I keep; O God! that bread should be so dear, And flesh and blood so cheap!

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

"Work—work—work! From weary chime to chime, Work—work—work— As prisoners work for crime! Band, and gusset, and seam, Seam, and gusset, and band, Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumb'd, As well as the weary hand.

"Work—work—work, In the dull December light, And work—work—work, When the weather is warm and bright— While underneath the eaves The brooding swallows cling, As if to show me their sunny backs And twit me with the spring.

"O, but to breathe the breath Of the cowslip and primrose sweet!— With the sky above my head, And the grass beneath my feet; For only one short hour To feel as I used to feel, Before I knew the woes of want And the walk that costs a meal!

"O, but for one short hour! A respite however brief! No blessed leisure for Love or Hope, But only time for Grief! A little weeping would ease my heart, But in their briny bed My tears must stop, for every drop Hinders needle and thread!

"Seam, and gusset, and band, Band, and gusset, and seam, Work, work, work, Like the Engine that works by Steam! A mere machine of iron and wood That toils for Mammon's sake— Without a brain to ponder and craze Or a heart to feel—and break!"

—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,— Would that its tone could reach the Rich!— She sang this "Song of the Shirt!"

63 episodes