I have gathered some British poems which deal with social issues. For
brevity's sake, I'm not posting these in their entirety (some are
quite lengthy). To read the full text, just click the link beneath
"The Song of the Shirt," by Thomas Hood, is about sweatshop labor:
Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you're wearing out,
But human creatures' lives!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone,
I hardly fear its terrible shape,
It seems so like my own--
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep;
Oh, God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!
The Victorian Web: The Song of the Shirt
"The Ballad of Reading Gaol," by Oscar Wilde, takes on capital punishment:
They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.
They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies;
They mocked the swollen purple throat
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.
The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.
Emotional Literacy Education
"The Mask of Anarchy," by Percy Bysshe Shelley, was written in
reaction to a government-sanctioned massacre:
Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand -
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street...
And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again - again - again -
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.
Art of Europe: The Mask of Anarchy
William Wordsworth's Sonnet 9 from "Poems Dedicated to National
Independence and Liberty" is a brief, memorable expression of racial
We had a female Passenger who came
From Calais with us, spotless in array,--
A white-robed Negro, like a lady gay,
Yet downcast as a woman fearing blame;
Meek, destitute, as seemed, of hope or aim
She sat, from notice turning not away,
But on all proffered intercourse did lay
A weight of languid speech, or to the same
No sign of answer made by word or face:
Yet still her eyes retained their tropic fire,
That, burning independent of the mind,
Joined with the lustre of her rich attire
To mock the Outcast.--O ye Heavens, be kind!
And feel, thou Earth, for this afflicted Race!
EveryPoet: William Wordsworth
William Cowper's "The Negro's Complaint" is an indictment of slavery:
Forced from home and all its pleasures
Afric's coast I left forlorn,
To increase a stranger's treasures
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task ?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.
Anti-Slavery Poems by William Cowper
Dame Ethel Smyth wrote a poem called "The March of the Women" and then
set it to music. It was influential in the fight for women's suffrage:
Long, Long--we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong--stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these--beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.
Comrades--ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned--nought have ye cared,
Rising your eyes to a wider morrow.
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail--victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn
Life, strife--these two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on--that ye have done
But for the work of to-day preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end),
March, march--many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
Suffragists Speak: Suffrage Songs
"The Chimney Sweeper," from William Blake's "Songs of Experience,"
concerns child labor:
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother! say!
They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil'd among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
William Blake Page: The Chimney Sweeper
Also from Blake's "Songs of Experience" is "Holy Thursday," about poverty:
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!
And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill'd with thorns
It is eternal winter there.
William Blake Page: Holy Thursday
Of all the social issues that are discussed by poets, war is probably
the one which has inspired the most passionate poems.
Siegfried Sassoon's "Does it Matter?" is a short but memorable verse
about disabled veterans:
DOES it matter?--losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter?--losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter?--those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
Siegfried Sassoon: War Poems
Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is as powerful and troubling
today as it was when it was written during World War I:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
War Poems & Manuscripts of Wilfred Owen
From W.H. Auden's sonnet series, "In Time of War":
And the age ended, and the last deliverer died.
In bed, grown idle and unhappy; they were safe:
The sudden shadow of the giant's enormous calf
Would fall no more at dusk across the lawn outside.
They slept in peace: in marshes here and there no doubt
A sterile dragon lingered to a natural death,
But in a year the spoor had vanished from the heath;
The kobold's knocking in the mountain petered out.
Only the sculptors and the poets were half sad,
And the pert retinue from the magician's house
Grumbled and went elsewhere. The vanished powers were glad
To be invisible and free: without remorse
Struck down the sons who strayed their course,
And ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad.
The Wondering Minstrels: 'In Time of War, XII'
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