Words from Hungry Lips
Title:Words from Hungry Lips
Publication:The New York Atlas
Published in:New York City
In the Spring of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln became determined to bring an end to slavery in the US: he commanded northern US forces to blockade southern ports, and thus suspend trade. Ultimately, the export of slave-grown cotton dried up. Liverpool traders also suspended trade waiting for prices to increase. Consequentially, starvation and public destitution arose in Northern Britain as economic hardship set in. Morford’s 1867 poem, taken from an editorial contribution to The New York Atlas, is re-imagined, and re-published in this new context of public suffering after the paralysis of trade, exploring the suffering and social consequence of the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
Unbroken alternating rhyme immediately locates the verse in a spiral of suffering, starvation and desperation. Splitting the poem into six octets, Morford denotes a slow degradation of humanity and national pride. However, it lacks the eight octets that would complete the poem as a reflection of its stanzaic form, possibly alluding to the abrupt, unexpected nature of life in poverty and starvation. The verse gives no concrete ending to the speaker’s suffering: ironic italics, and unusual subjunctive, ends the poem on a hopeful note. Nonetheless, alongside the unfaltering rhyme scheme, the italics seem a futile attempt to escape inevitable starvation. The ambiguity, and dislocation of the verse becomes palpable.
The speaker uses extended metaphor to leave allusions to his animalistic, and even murderous state as a starving subject: he becomes a “weir-wolf”, driven to “gnash[ing]” and curs[ing]”, yet refusing to beg for money from those who “put up their purses”, “thin and low”. The suspension of trade brings the ‘sophisticated’ urban space into that of the animal, external and wild.
In emphatic anaphora and punctuation, the verse creates an atmosphere of aural dramatic monologue, imagining an accused speaker, asked rhetorical and pointedly political questions. Nevertheless, Morford never reveals the speaker’s immediate location, or identity, allowing the voice to expand: it becomes the starving urban citizen, a voice en-masse, speaking from the depths of European, and American cities, recounted by Morford in his 1867 collection “Over-Sea”.
Bryony Watts, University of Exeter