By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Poetry’ is close to ‘poverty’, and not just because the words sound so similar, sharing all but one letter. Many poets, of course, have known penury and been penniless, although a few, such as Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, made a fortune from their poems. (Tennyson was once offered 1,000 guineas to write eight verses for Christmas cards.)
And many poets have written brilliantly about the plight of the poor, and about poverty as a theme. Here are ten of the greatest poems about the poor and poverty.
Robert Herrick, ‘Poverty and Riches’.
We begin this selection of the finest poems about poverty and being poor with one of the axiomatic couplets of the Cavalier poet, Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick urges the reader to be happy with a little rather than wanting more and more in the vain hope that acquisition will bring happiness. This poem, being only two lines long, can be shared here in full:
Who with a little cannot be content,
Endures an everlasting punishment.
Thomas Traherne, ‘Poverty’.
Although he died in 1674 when Charles II was on the English throne, it was not until the reign of Edward VII – over two centuries later – that Thomas Traherne’s poetry began to be published and admired.
In ‘Poverty’, Traherne sits and wonders ‘That all my Wealth should be / Confin’d in such a little Room’, telling us that ‘It griev’d me sore / That such a scanty Store / Should be my All.’ Yet when he starts to think about the bigger, spiritual picture, Traherne modifies his view…
Anna Lætitia Barbauld, ‘To the Poor’.
Child of distress, who meet’st the bitter scorn
Of fellow-men to happier prospects born,
Doomed Art and Nature’s various stores to see
Flow in full cups of joy—and not for thee;
Who seest the rich, to heaven and fate resigned,
Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind;
Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control,
Who feel’st oppression’s iron in thy soul,
Who dragg’st the load of faint and feeble years,
Whose bread is anguish, and whose water tears …
Anticipating the focus on poverty and the lives of the poor found in later poetry by the Romantics, this poem by Barbauld (1743-1825) parrots some of the lines the well-off often tell the poor to keep them poor and happy: it’s part of God’s grand plan, and he has decreed that they should remain in poverty. But Barbauld urges the poor to take comfort in the fact that they will be the rich ones in Heaven…
William Blake, ‘Holy Thursday’.
Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty …
This is one of two ‘Holy Thursday’ poems Blake (1757-1827) wrote: the first appeared in his Songs of Innocence, while this one took a bleaker approach, as Blake wonders aloud about the fact that England, ‘a rich and fruitful land’, is full of ‘Babes reduc’d to misery’ and ‘so many children poor’. England is ‘a land of poverty!’
William Wordsworth, ‘Alice Fell, or Poverty’.
The chaise drove on; our journey’s end
Was nigh; and, sitting by my side,
As if she had lost her only friend
She wept, nor would be pacified.
Up to the tavern-door we post;
Of Alice and her grief I told;
And I gave money to the host,
To buy a new cloak for the old …
Wordsworth often wrote about the plight of the poor, as did other leading Romantic poets such as Percy Shelley. In ‘Alice Fell’, Wordsworth tells the story of a little orphan, ‘fatherless and motherless’, whom the speaker of the poem meets on the road to Durham. He shows her an act of kindness which lifts her spirits and helps her to forget, at least for a while, her grief at being poor and without a family.
Thomas Hood, ‘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 …’
First published in 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ takes its title from the song the woman sings to herself as she works hard at her stitching, making shirts from dawn till – well, beyond dusk. ‘Work! work! work! / While the cock is crowing aloof! / And work — work — work, / Till the stars shine through the roof!’
All day, every day, the woman slaves away at her stitching, yet she remains in ‘poverty, hunger, and dirt’. Given the exploitation of cheap labour still occurring around the world, this poem remains all too topical.
Jane Taylor, ‘Poverty’.
I saw an old cottage of clay,
And only of mud was the floor;
It was all falling into decay,
And the snow drifted in at the door …
This poem about poverty was written by a poet who is not much read now, although she also gave us one of the most famous children’s rhymes in English.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Your Riches taught me Poverty’.
Your riches taught me poverty.
Myself a millionaire
In little wealths – as girls could boast –
Till broad as Buenos Ayre,
You drifted your dominions
A different Peru;
And I esteemed all poverty,
For life’s estate with you …
Although this poem uses poverty and wealth as symbols for something more spiritual and personal, it’s a fine poem and so deserves to figure in our pick of the best poverty poems. Dickinson meets somebody – based on Sue, a real woman she met – whose brilliance and grace make her realise how ‘poor’ she is next to her…
W. B. Yeats, ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
The gist of this poem, one of Yeats’s most popular poems, is straightforward: if I were a rich man, I’d give you the world and all its treasures. If I were a god, I could take the heavenly sky and make a blanket out of it for you.
But I’m only a poor man, and obviously the idea of making the sky into a blanket is silly and out of the question, so all I have of any worth are my dreams. And dreams are delicate and vulnerable – hence ‘Tread softly’.
W. H. Auden, ‘Refugee Blues’. Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in Yorkshire, England but later moved to the United States. He wrote ‘Refugee Blues’ about the many Jewish immigrants who had fled to the US, and especially New York, from persecution in Europe. Not a particularly upbeat poem, but one that carries Auden’s trademark political bite and which highlights the plight of many New Yorkers who had fled death and exchanged it for poverty, and feel displaced and unwelcome in the city.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.