Words from Hungry Lips

“Humph? You think you have felt and known
Something of poverty – something of pain!
Do you know what it is when the heart is a stone,
And the madness of hunger has seized on the brain? –
When you gaze in the baker’s window long,
And stare at the meat shops, ghastly and grim,
And feel like a wier-wolf, famine-strong,
Tearing some traveller limb from limb?
“Meat! – What a succulent, juicy taste
It used to have! That was months ago.
If only I could have some kitchen’s waste,
How greasy and sleek my face would grow.
I had yesterday a crust of bread;
A cold potatoe the day before;
They say that this want and sorrow must spread:
When shall I get a mouthful more?
“I met a servant hurrying home.
But yesterday, with a dainty pie;
Does she know, I wonder, how near we come
To murder sometimes, and the reason why?
Then out of a basement the fragrance came
From roasting fowls and from broiling meat;
And it when like poison through my frame,
Till I gnashed and cursed in the public street.
“You have never felt the hunger-pang? –
Or only its warnings far and faint?
Then think of the sting of the adder’s fang,
And the torture rack of the martyr saint;
Of a fiery worm that moves within,
Burning and knowing the life away;
Of the doom of hell for human sin:
And thank God for the mercy while you may!
“It is worst in the morning, when you rose
From the door-stone or the lumber pile:
By noon, in faintness the hunger dies,
And the worms are still for a little while.
Then it comes again – and sharper, and worse –
As the dusk night falls and the lamps are lit,
And heedless of blow, or kick, or curse,
In forbidden places you stagger and sit.
“I have told enough. May you never know
Whether my words are false or true!
Put up your purse, that is thin and low! –
I would starve outright ere I’d beg from you!
Forget my story, and never mind
What a hungry man may do or say!
Who knows but I may happen to find
A piece of bread this very day!”

Title:Words from Hungry Lips

Author:Henry Morford

Publication:The New York Atlas

Published in:New York City


Keywords:hunger, poverty


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