Cotton Lords EP Launches

Faustus at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Catherine Harvey Green)

Faustus at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Rachel Jardine)

Simon Rennie at the Slaughtered Lamb (courtesy of Rachel Jardine)

 

Last week traditional music group Faustus launched their exclusive EP CD release, Cotton Lords, at two events in London at the Slaughtered Lamb Inn, Clerkenwell, and in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation Centre. The CD is the culmination of two years collaboration between the University of Exeter’s AHRC-funded Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry project and one of Britain’s most respected traditional music groups. Four of the five tracks on the CD are based on texts already featured on the database, but ‘Wrongs and Rights’ is part of the huge batch of poems still being processed for eventual inclusion. The other four tracks are ‘Cotton Lords’ (known as ‘Food or Work’ on the database), ‘Lancashire Operatives (Starvation)’, ‘Lancashire Factory Girl’, and ‘I Would This War Were Ended’. The CD is an important commemoration of one of the most devastating economic periods in Victorian history and the poetic response of ordinary people.  It includes a booklet of extensive notes giving an overview of the history of the period, an account of Faustus’s involvement with the project, detailed notes on each of the tracks, and lyrics. The CD also contains a bonus video of Faustus’s rousing adaptation of an 1840s Chartist poem, ‘Slaves’.

The launch events in Manchester and London, on the 13th and 15th of May 2019 respectively, were deeply appreciated by attendees, some of whom were Faustus followers and others who were encountering the band’s musicianship and dynamism for the first time. The focus on the five Cotton Famine tracks and a general theme of social commentary from working voices from the past made these events particularly interesting and many people stayed behind afterwards to ask questions of the band and the project’s Principal Investigator, Dr Simon Rennie, who had given a short contextual talk before each performance.  The project is extremely grateful for the involvement and support of Faustus – Benji Kirkpatrick, Saul Rose, and Paul Sartin, and sound engineer Matt Williams who produced the CD, and record company Westpark Music’s Ulli Hetscher. People in several countries are engaging with the texts the project has uncovered in various ways, but this collaboration with Faustus, and the legacy of this recording, is a particularly notable and distinctive outcome for our research.

You can buy Faustus’s Cotton Lords EP CD here: https://faustusfolk.bandcamp.com/

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter

 

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 12 – The Cotton Famine – Christmas 1862.

It’s the final day of our Christmas Countdown! Our event at Bolton Library is tonight at 6pm, so there’s just about time to register for tickets at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529. We hope to see some of you there – as well as short talks, Jennifer Reid will perform the poems we’ve showcased over the last twelve days, and of course there’ll be some festive refreshments.

Our twelfth poem is Samuel Clarkson’s ‘The Cotton Famine – Christmas 1862’ from the Burnley Free Press and General Advertiser, March 1st 1863.

THE COTTON FAMINE – CHRISTMAS 1862

England! thy Christmas mirth is mixed with tears,

   While pinching penury and want despoil

   Ten thousand homes, where dwelt thy sons of toil;

Gone are thrifty fruits of struggling years.

Against the brighter past, thy doubts and fears

   See future clouds that darken like a foil;

   Yet seeds of joy find root in sorrow’s soil;

To Faith and Hope the coming dawn appears.

Endure and trust, while Charity divine

   Thy hungry feeds, and clothes thy shiv’ring poor;

Then, when the day of peace again shall shine

   With golden gladness o’er yon western shore,

A nobler thrice bless’d commerce shall be thine,

   Stain’d with the guilt of slavery no more.

 

Manchester, Dec. 22, 1862

 

This poem is already on our database, with a formal commentary by Simon. However, we thought it was worth including it here as it encapsulates many of the themes of the Christmas poetry we’ve highlighted throughout this Countdown, including Faith, Hope, and Charity, which are personified here tending to the poor, and perhaps restoring some Christmas joy. This poem is also particularly interesting, as Simon has noted, because it explicitly recognises Britain’s role in sustaining slavery through the reliance of the cotton industry on slave-produced raw material. Many poems we have found gloss over this, or celebrate Britain’s abolition of the slave trade without acknowledging the more indirect ways in which the nation supported the practice of slavery elsewhere. When we talk about this project, we often discuss how attitudes to the American Civil War among Lancashire workers were complicated, and, contrary to the popular myth, not all cotton operatives were in support of the North and emancipation. Nonetheless, the rousing end to this poem suggests that eradicating the evils of slavery could be a source of hope for suffering people, a means of restoring the dignity of Lancashire’s “sons of toil”.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these daily updates, and that you’ll join us in 2019 as these Christmas poems and more are released on the database. We’ve been absolutely thrilled by the response to the project in 2018 from all around the world, and would like to thank everyone who has helped us with research, events, and publicity this year. There’s lots more to come in the New Year, but until then we wish you all a very happy festive season!

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter. 

Victorian Christmas card from Wikimedia Commons.

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 11: Merry Christmas Eve

Welcome to the penultimate day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown, and the eve of our Christmas event! Free tickets for the event are still available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem is ‘Merry Christmas Eve’ by the Chartist poet Gerald Massey. It was published in the Blackburn Times on December 26th, 1863.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVE.

BY GERALD MASSEY.

 

Merry Christmas Eve! in the Palace where knavery

   Crowds all the treasures the fair world can render;

Where spirits grow rusted in silkenest slavery,

   And life is out-panted, in sloth and in splendour;

In gladness and glory, Wealth’s darlings were meeting,

   And jewel-claspt fingers linkt softly again;

New friendships were twining, and old friends were greeting,

   And twin hearts grew one, in God’s golder love chain.

 

Merry Christmas Eve! in a poor man’s grim hovel,

   There huddled in silence a famishing family;

Church bells were laughing in musical revel.

   They heard the loud mockery, with brows throbbing clammily;

All in the merry time there they sat, mourning —

   Two sons – two brothers – in penal chains bleeding;

Their hearts wandered forth to the never-returning,

   Who rose on their vision, pale, haggard, and pleading.

 

Merry Christmas Eve! for the rich, as in duty,

   Taste pander’d and ruby wine woo’d on the board,

Eyes smiled in feign’d glory, on birth, and on beauty;

   And lying lips flatter’d the Mammonite lord.

Love-kisses sobb’d out, ‘twixt the rollic and rout,

   And Hope went forth, reaping in long-promist treasure.

What matter, tho’ hearts might be breaking without?

   Their groans were unheard in the palace of pleasure.

 

Merry Christmas Eve! but the stricken ones heard

   No neighbourly welcome, no kind  voice of kin;

They look’t at each other, but spake not a word,

   While through crevice, and cranny, the sleet drifted in.

In a desolate corner, one, hunger-kill’d, lay,

   And the mother’s hot tears were the bosom-babe’s food.

What marvel, O Statesmen, what marvel, I pray,

   Such misery nurseth Crime’s dark viper-brood?

 

O men, angel-imaged in Nature’s fair mint,

   And is it for this, ye were fashioned dvine?

Ah, where’s the god-stamp – Immortality’s print?

   We are tyrants and slaves, knit in one tortured twine;

That a few, like to gods, may stride over the earth,

   Millions, born to heart murder, are given in pawn;

When will the world quicken for Liberty’s birth,

   Which she waiteth, with eager wings beating the dawn?

 

False priests, dare ye say ‘tis the will of your God,

   (And shroud the Christ’s message in dark sophistry,)

That these millions of paupers should bow to the sod?

   Up, up, trampled hearts, it’s a lie! it’s a lie!

They may carve “State” and “Altar” in characters golden,

   But Tyranny’s symbols are ceasing to win;

Be stirring, O people, your scroll is unfolden,

   And bright be the deeds ye emblazon within.

 

Commentary

Newspapers like the Blackburn Times often reprinted poems from earlier collections, as they have done here with Gerald Massey’s ‘Merry Christmas Eve’. This is one of Massey’s earliest poems, originally published in 1850 as ‘’Twas Christmas Eve.’ Nonetheless, the poem feels relevant to the circumstances of the Cotton Famine because of its discussion of poverty and social injustice. In alternate stanzas, Gerald Massey paints contrasting pictures of Christmas Eve in rich and poor households respectively. Though it is not an abolitionist poem, slavery is evoked as a metaphor for the condition of the working classes, and its repeated mention may well have felt significant in the 1860s given the context of the American Civil War. Unlike many of the Christmas poems we have featured, ‘Merry Christmas Eve’ does not contrast wealth and poverty in a call for charity, but rather to inspire political action among the working classes with the rousing final lines: “Be stirring, O people, your scroll is unfolden, / And bright be the deeds ye emblazon within.”

For anyone interested in Massey’s life and work, and in Victorian working-class writers more generally, we highly recommend Ian Petticrew’s excellent website. http://gerald-massey.org.uk/

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on flickr.com

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 10: Remember the Poor

Welcome to day 10 of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem is by Edwin Waugh, probably the best known dialect poet of the period (though this poem is in standard English). It was published in the Bolton Chronicle on January 24th, 1863.

 REMEMBER THE POOR.

BY EDWIN WAUGH.

                     

As I sat by the fire on a bleak winter’s day,

When the woods and fields were forlorn;

When the waters were candied all over with ice,

And the keen blast wailed in the thorn;

Across by my window the thick falling snow,

As it drifted upon the wind.

Threw a cold-looking gloom o’er my warm little room

And awoke sad thoughts in my mind.

 

A small bird came begging to my window sill,

And the snow-drift powdered his breast;

He chirped and he peeped till I threw him some crumbs,

 Which he took up aloft to his nest;

Then I shut down the window to keep out the wind,

And I paced o’er my parlour floor;

And I looked at the fire; and I said with a sigh,

Now’s the time to remember the poor!

 

Creeping dose to my hearth-stone, so cosy and warm,

Where the wild cold winds I defied.

I began to muse on the sick and forlorn,

And the poor folks that roam outside;

And, trembling to think what the thousands that

In their comfortless nooks endure,

I looked through the window again, and I said—

   “Now’s the time to remember the poor!”

 

As yon pale workman creeps through the snow-muffled street,

    ‘Mid the white flakes whirling past,

His frost-bitten bands in his garments so thin

He is hiding away from the blast:

Now he halts by yon kitchen, whose savoury steams

     Many a famishing wand’rer allure ;

Then he glides on again like a ghost, through the snow;—

“Now’s the time to remember the poor!”

 

And now, from a corner, that fends off the storm,

He peers, with despair in his eye,

At the fire-lighted windows the warm chimney-top,

And the coach rolling merrily by;

Once more, he goes murmuring slow on his way,

“Lord, how long will this endure?”

And the snow-shroud whirls wild round its shivering prey, —

“Now’s the time to remember the poor!”

 

How little they think, who are cheerful and warm,

While they laugh at the wintry tide,

What the folk that are hungry, the sick and the sad,

In their cold, dark corners abide :

But this life it is short, both to high and to low,

     And there’s nought upon earth that’s sure :

We were bare when we came, and bare we most go,—

“Now’s the time to remember the poor!”

 Commentary

Waugh’s poem does not specifically mention the Cotton Famine, but has relevance to the period due to the familiar themes of poverty and charity. As in many of the other Christmas poems, the comforts of a well-to-do home are contrasted with the “comfortless nooks” of the unfortunate poor. Waugh emphasises the impact of the cold, repeatedly referring to the snow, ice, and keen wind that compound the misery of a poorly dressed worker with little to spare for blankets or fuel. Waugh himself had working-class origins, though by the time of the Cotton Famine, he was able to make a living from his writing. This is from the point of view of someone comfortably off, rather than in the voice of the cold, hungry worker, and is perhaps therefore aimed at those who were able to “remember the poor” through charitable acts.

The version of this poem published in Waugh’s Poems and Songs (1889) notes that it is composed ‘To an old English melody’, and thus was intended to be sung rather than simply recited.

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter.

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on flickr.com

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 9: A Christmas Carol for 1862

Welcome to the ninth day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem was originally published in the Cornhill Magazine, and reprinted in the Bolton Chronicle on December 27th, 1862. The commentary was written by Olivia Galyer, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL FOR 1862

By George MacDonald

From Cornhill Magazine for January

 

The skies are pale, the trees are stiff,

   The earth is dull and old;

The frost is glittering, as if

   The very sun were cold.

And Hunger fell is linked with Frost,

   To make man grey and wan:

Come Babe, from heaven, or we are lost;

   Be born, O child of man.

 

The children cry, the women shake,

   The strong men stare about;

They sleep when they would keep awake –

   They wake ere night is out.

For they have lost their heritage –

   No sweat is on their brow:

Come, Babe, and bring them work and wage;

   Be born, and save us now.

 

Across the sea, beyond our sight,

   Roars on the fierce debate;

Down go the men in bloody fight,

   The women weep and hate.

And in the right be which that may,

   Surely the strife is long:

Come thou, O Child, thy lowly way,

   And right will have no wrong.

 

Good men speak lies against thine own –

   Tongues quick, and hearing slow;

They will not let thee walk alone,

   And think to serve thee so:

If they the children’s freedom saw,

   In thee, the children’s king,

They would be still with holy awe,

   Or only speak to sing.

 

Some neither lie, nor starve, nor fight,

   Nor yet the poor deny;

But in their hearts all is not right –

   They often sit and sigh.

Earth cries with all her nights and days,

   Grey frosts and golden corn;

The travailing creation prays:

   O Son of God, be born.

 

Commentary

In this carol George MacDonald describes the harsh effects of the Lancashire Cotton Famine on innocent people who appear powerless to improve their poverty-stricken lives. Men having been denied the ability to work are left emasculated while the low temperature of the environment appears to mirror the low spirits of the people in a form of pathetic fallacy. The cold weather compounds the suffering of the people with their hunger hastening the aging process of men. Against these desperate conditions the speaker pleads for the intervention of religion, calling for the birth of Christ in a repeated refrain to fulfil his role as the savior of humankind by providing these people with the ability to work and earn money.

Formally the carol has a regular ABAB rhyme scheme and is comprised of five octet stanzas with the lines in each stanza alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The only time the meter changes is in the seventh line of the first stanza when the speaker questions whether humankind is ‘lost’ with the shift in meter reflecting this sense of loss. McDonald makes reference to the destructive consequences of the American Civil War both in America, with the country’s men fighting, and internationally with the American supply of raw cotton to Europe cut off devastating the Lancashire community as a result. The fact that ‘the strife is long’ is important with the cotton that had already been supplied to Lancashire used up, and for prolonging the suffering of the Lancashire people with ostensibly ‘good’ men resorting to telling lies for their own benefit. The speaker highlights in the final stanza how even those who are not directly implicated by the famine can acknowledge that it is ‘not right’ with even the Earth personified as crying.

Olivia Galyer, University of Exeter

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on flickr.com

 

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 8: A Christmas Carol

Welcome to the day 8 of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s anonymous poem is ‘A Christmas Carol’ from the Blackburn Times, December 20th, 1862.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

IT is Christmas! and I’m thinking

We might make the poor to feel

Happy, in this time of friendship

That will o’er the wealthy steal.

What of Christ, our risen brother,

Who the multitude did feed

With the loaves and two small fishes,

When of food they were in need?

Dare we say the loaves and fishes

Now are taken in His name?

And the simple Christian gospel

Is not still the very same

That the weary and forsaken

Turn’d to with a loving part,

While the Everlasting Father

Heal’d the broken, bleeding heart?

Oh! I read how one Zaccheus,

Short of stature, climb’d a tree,

To see the Teacher as He pass’d,

And evoked His sympathy.

Salvation to his house had come

When Zaccheus, for the poor,

Gave half his goods; and a four-fold

Those he’d wrong’d in craft before.

Where the spirit, wounded, broken,

Silent suffers in this woe,

By your Christian Christmas bounty

Let your alms in secret flow

From the halls where plenty reigns,

From the mites that might be saved,

A merry Christmas, and God bless you,

For the Blackburn well-behaved.

Commentary

Today’s poem follows familiar themes in Christmas Cotton Famine Poetry, with a focus on religion and charity. As in many of the other poems we’ve featured, the joys and comforts of Christmas for the wealthy and its potential trials for the poor are contrasted, and the poet goes on to draw on Biblical teaching to encourage some redistribution of resources. Interestingly, the tone towards the rich is one of disapproval, and the wording suggests that they are due some of the blame for the condition of the poor. References are made to the loaves and fishes being ‘taken’ from the people, and to Zaccheus the tax collector, regarded as a sinner until his faith in Christ led him to seek redemption by returning dishonest earnings and giving to the poor. Finally, there is a warning against ostentatious giving, so we know that the envisioned ‘well-behaved’ of Blackburn are those who help the poor through pure motives rather than to gain social approval.

Though this poem is described as a carol, unfortunately there is no further information provided about any musical accompaniment or a suggested tune.

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter.

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on flickr.com

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 7: Christmas in the Hard Times

Welcome to the seventh day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Our poem for today is ‘Christmas in the Hard Times’ from the Preston Guardian, published on December 6th 1862. The commentary comes from Bess Amelia Yeager, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.

CHRISTMAS IN THE HARD TIMES

Thou art coming, hale and hoary

    Christmas, king of cheer and gladness;

But there’s dimness in thy glory,

And thy joy is tinged with sadness.

Yet we’ll welcome thee with pleasure,

    In the hope of better days;

And no sad or mournful measure

    Shall inspire our Christmas lays.

Welcome! joy inspiring spirit,

    Brooding o’er the dying year;

May mankind from thee inherit

    Peace, with its attendant cheer.

Driving back the shade of sorrow,

    Still we cry, “All hail to thee!”

Be thou like the coming morrow

    Which shall set the prisoner free.

Bless the rich with noble feeling,

    That the rich may bless the poor;

Keep the wasted hand from stealing;

Keep gaunt famine from the door.

When thou’st wooed all men with gladness,—

    When thou’st opened plenty’s store,—

Bind the fiends of war and madness—

    Keep them prisoners evermore.

Then from every hill and valley

    Peace and happiness shall smile;

Joy shall light each street and alley

    Through our patient, generous isle.

TAYLOR’S, too, with beauty glowing,

    In the styles which all admire,

Will be found on all bestowing

    Beauteous, good, and cheap attire!

CommentaryWritten in melodic trochaic tetrameter with some lines omitting the last syllable of the pattern, this poem functions as both an encouragement to celebrate the gifts of Christmas and an advertisement for a clothing store. The narrator addresses the personification of Christmas with words of optimism despite “dimness in [its] glory.” A capitalistic tone (“Bless the rich with noble feeling, / That the rich may bless the poor”) emerges halfway through the poem; this eventually culminates in a call to patronize E. Taylor’s clothing store in the last four lines. Rather than ending with a tone of universal solidarity against poverty and strife, the poem appeals to a class who can afford to shop at a clothing store like Taylor’s and implores Christmas to keep “the wasted hand” from stealing, and keep “gaunt famine” from the door.

Bess Amelia Yeager, University of Exeter

Victorian Christmas card from Wikimedia Commons.

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 6: Father Christmas

Welcome to day six of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem, ‘Father Christmas’, is from the Blackburn Times, December 24th 1864. The poet gives their name simply as the initials, F.P.A.

FATHER CHRISTMAS.

 Old Father Christmas rose one day,

   And he took his staff in hand,

Quoth he, “I’ll see who keeps me best

   Throughout the Christmas land.”

So away he strode with the early dawn

   Wrapped up in his robe of snow,

And he called on the glittering ice to form,

   And the keen north wind to blow.

 

From far and near he heard the sound

   Of the merry Christmas chime,

And the jovial Carol singers came

    With many an ancient rhyme.

The holly shone in the casement old,

   The mistletoe on high,

And from the hearthstone wide he saw

   The sparks from the yule log fly.

 

The board was set with festive cheer,

    The liveried menials wait,

All heedless of the shivering poor

   Outside the castle gate.

They quaff’d no ruby drops nor saw

   Their table simply spread;

Enough for them the daily toil

   And scanty daily bread.

 

Too proud to beg, too poor to eat

   Save of the coarsest fare,

Their hovel homes no fitting place

    For human souls to share.

Old Father Christmas shook his head,

    And he breathed a heavy sigh,

“God help the rich man, then,” he said,

   “When such beside him lie.”

 

And the north wind bore the words away,

   With a wild and wailing shriek,

As a good Samaritan drew near,

   Kind, pitying words to speak.

He bound the wound, he dried the tear,

    He cheer’d the spirit faint,

And listen’d with untiring zeal

   To every mourner’s plaint.

 

And yet he wore no costly robe,

   He own’d no stately hall,

And no long train of menials proud

   Came forward at his call.

But in his heart lay hid a gem

   A thousand times more rare

Than all the rich and precious things

   The world could gather there.

 

“Such keep me best,” old Christmas said,

   “Such have not learnt in vain

That well-fill’d barns and garn’d store

   May not be always gain.”

So, draw a moral from my tale,

   All ye with riches bless’d,

For they who spare to those in need

   Are keeping Christmas best.

                                                                F.P.A.

 

Commentary

The secular figure of Father Christmas is used here as a rebuke to the hypocrisy of wealthy people who celebrate Christmas lavishly but without attention to those in need. The first two stanzas draw on traditional festive imagery, with holly and mistletoe, and a blazing fire to dispel the chill of the ice and snow, but this is quickly contrasted with the cold and sparse homes of the poor. The message, pointedly aimed at wealthier readers, is that the trimmings of the season mean little without attention to the duties of charity and love for one’s neighbour. Though the poem is not overtly religious, it does draw on Biblical themes, referencing the story of the Good Samaritan and hinting that the rich may find it more difficult to enter the kingdom of God.

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter.

A Victorian Christmas Card, from Nova Scotia Archives on flickr.com

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 5: Christmas Comes!

Welcome to day five of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

With one week to go, today’s poem is ‘Christmas Comes!’, an anonymous poem published in the Burnley Free Press on December 26th 1863. The commentary is by Lindsay Warner, a student on the ‘Poetry and Politics’ module in the Department of English at the University of Exeter.

CHRISTMAS COMES!

He comes! he comes! old Christmas comes,

   With his rosy face, so jolly.

His locks are white, and his voice old;

   But he’s wreath’d in verdant holly.

The berries of that deep green wreath,

   So ruddy and endearing,

Even now, in thought, stir up the heart

   With fancies bright and cheering.

 

’Tis true, there are some clouds o’erhead,

   That mar prospective glow,

And damp the feelings Christmas brings,

   ’Midst bitter frost and snow;

But still he comes – the stalwart comes,

   As he has done of yore,
Into the hearts of all mankind,

   Affection’s joys to pour.

 

Then let us now begin to plan

   Some method in our greeting,

That this year’s woes may be review’d

   At every social meeting.

Distress is rife, and coming months

   Will make it more severe;

Christmas will, to some poor men,

   Be comfortless and drear.

 

Then let us view with chasten’d eyes

   The various stores of food

This festive season always brings,

   However rare and good;

For all superfluous things should be

   Ignored for this one year,

The cost of which – a large amount –

   Would starving Christmas cheer.

 

Commentary

These four 8-line stanzas, each with a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE, contrast the “bright and cheering” festive spirit of the Christmas holiday to the “distress” people feel through the rest of the year. These oppositions that are separated into the first and second stanzas respectively collide in the final two stanzas, where the “chasten’d eyes” force a re-examination of the “rare” feast that the “festive season always brings”. The narrator enacts a reprimand for those who focus on the negatives during the holidays when there are others who are struggling more than them. Those fortunate enough to have a Christmas feast are told to ignore its extravagance because the joy of one Christmas banquet is enough to tackle the struggles the rest of the year brings.

This sense of joy is furthered through the personification of Christmas. The poem opens with “He comes! he comes!”, which changes from the title’s proper noun “Christmas” to the personal pronoun “he”; the first stanza then goes on to physically describe this “he”. By embodying Christmas in a human entity, the poet allows readers to view the holiday as akin to an old friend always there to lift their spirits, despite the barriers of “bitter frost and snow”. This therefore depicts Christmas as being loyal and reliable companion even through winters blighted by the Cotton Famine.

Lindsay Warner, University of Exeter.

Victorian Christmas card from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown Day 4: The Starving Cotton Spinner’s Christmas Lament

Welcome to the fourth day of our Cotton Famine Christmas Countdown! To get us in the festive (sort of) spirit, we’re featuring a seasonal Cotton Famine Poem every day in the run up to our special Christmas event with Jennifer Reid on 20th December. Free tickets for the event are available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-twelve-cotton-famine-poems-of-christmas-tickets-52954230529

Today’s poem is a clergyman, the Reverend Thomas M. Freeman. It was published in the Manchester Courier on December 13th 1862.

THE STARVING COTTON SPINNERS’ CHRISTMAS LAMENT, A.D. 1862

BY THE REV. THOMAS M. FREEMAN.

 Hang on the willow boughs the silent harp,

For bitten by hunger’s cruel fangs so sharp,

Our wasted fingers cannot sound the string,

Nor have our falt’ring voices strength to sing;

Bare is our board this year of Christmas fare,

Our ill-clad limbs shake with the chilly air.

 

Around the scanty fire out children crowd,

For bread – for bread – their voices cry aloud;

Ah! must we see them pine before our eyes,

Nor have wherewith to pacify their cries?

O pitying One! who in the manger lay,

From heaven – thy throne – look down, and be our stay.

 

Help us that we heavy cross may bear,

Thy roles of patient suffering meekly wear,

And through black sorrow’s darkly mournful night,

With quiet walking watch for morning light;

Heir of heaven’s riches! for our sakes made poor!

We seek for comfort at thy mercy’s door.

 

Ye, on whose well-warmed hearths the yule logs burn,

With pity towards your starving brethren turn;

Ye, who your limbs in ample clothing fold,

O, think of us, who shudder with the cold;

While steaming viands on your tables stand,

Let charity’s warm glow your hearts expand.

 

As a bright star the eastern sages led

To where the infant Saviour placed his head,

So let the light of kindness guide your feet

To our abodes, where suffering has its seat;

For His sake, who came from a heavenly throne,

O, leave us not (we pray) to weep alone.

 

Our household treasuries, one by one, we’ve sold;

Save the big Bible, and that Prayer Book old

With which our sires and grandsires worshipped,

The comforts of our homes have long since fled;

That Bible tells us who can always bless,

Those prayers shall be our comfort in distress.

 

O by Thy birth, Thou Son of God most high!

O by the death that thou for man didst die.

This trial sanctify that it may be

A means to bring us nearer unto Thee:

So, life’s voyage ended, we shall find a home

On those bright shores where want can never come.

 

Mellor, December, 1862.

 

Commentary

The poem adopts the voice of an out-of-work cotton spinner, who outlines the sufferings of Lancashire’s working class. The bare hearth, pawned goods, and starving children described are familiar themes in Cotton Famine Poetry. Unsurprisingly, given that the poet was a clergyman, the poem draws on religious imagery, reminding the reader of the vulnerability of Christ at the Nativity, but also offering hope in the form of a watchful God and the comforts of an afterlife in Heaven. The fourth stanza also suggests a more immediate source of relief, contrasting the warmth and plenty of Christmas in a wealthy home with the hunger and want of the cotton spinner to encourage charitable giving.

Dr Ruth Mather, University of Exeter.

Victorian Christmas card from Archives New Zealand’s former Post and Telegraph/Telecom Museum Holdings collection.