A Mother’s Wail.
An Episode Of Lancashire Distress, By John Plummer.

Dead – dead – dead!
Far better it should be so; -
To lie in a pauper’s coffin there,
Than sin’s temptation to know.
For, O! my girl was bonny and fair,
But beauty’s a curse you see,
When Hunger and Want, Disease and Care,
Such merciless fiends can be.
It was for her sake that, day by day,
My heart grew heavy and sore;
Till hope itself seemed ebbing away
From my life’s dark sunless shore.
Dead – dead – dead!
She was starved to death, I say,
Because of the fierce and cruel strife
‘Mid our kinsmen far away.
Man, look on her face, so worn and pale,
On her hands, so white and thin;
Her’s was a spirit that would not quail
From striving her bread to win!
But, yonder, closed is the factory gate,
The engine is red with rust;
And what could we do but starve, and wait
Till Peace should bring us a crust?
Dead – dead –dead!
With her brother lying ill,
And her father shiv’ring on the step
That leads to the silent mill!
Alone I kneel in my blinding tears –
Alone in my black despair –
My heart o’erburdened with gloomy fears,
Yet far too bitter for prayer!
Why do you prate how the world still grows
More kind and more wise each day?
War’s bloody flame still glitters and glows;
The olives of peace decay!
Dead – dead – dead!
O! God, that my curse could fall
On the heads of those whose selfish aims
Have worked such woe for us all!
Man, blame me not for my burning words,
Nor bid me these thoughts disclaim;
For Death has riven the silvery chords
That swelled through my anguish’d frame,
True, I’m only a woman, whose heart
Lies struck with a mortal blow;
But, God! how keen is the bleeding smart
A mother alone may know!

Title:A Mother's Wail

Author:John Plummer

Publication:The Bolton Chronicle

Published in:Bolton

Date:24th May 1862

Keywords:domesticity, gender, poverty, unemployment, war


This poem, though written by a man, is in the voice of a grieving mother. It consists of four twelve line stanzas, the first of each being the triad exclamation ‘Dead – dead – dead!’ The rhyme scheme is quite unusual, with the first and third lines being the only ones unrhymed in each stanza – ABCBDEDEFGFG. After initial exclamations, the stanzas largely settle into alternating seven- and nine-syllable lines, and the metre is mostly iambic.

Although the poem concerns starvation and grief it touches on the subject of sexual morality in the first stanza, even suggesting that the daughter is better off dead than having succumbed to temptation in order to survive. These kinds of issues are not uncommon in Cotton Famine poetry, but interestingly we have yet to find such a poem which we can prove was actually written by a woman. The line containing the italicised phrase ‘I’m only a woman’ indicates Plummer’s earnestness in his attempt to inhabit the voice of his subject, but is also deeply chauvinistic in its attitude.

- SR.