The Poetry of
(1781 - 1849)
Corn Law Rhymer & Poet of the Poor
Elliott wrote many poems - far too many to be listed here! Below are listed some of his works. Please note that while most of the items listed in the table are collections of poems, one or two are individual poems.
|1801||The Vernal Walk|
|1829||The Village Patriarch|
|1830||The Ranter *|
|1831||Corn Law Rhymes|
|1833||The Splendid Village|
|1848||The People's Anthem|
|1850||More Verse & Prose|
* The title of this volume was actually "Corn Law Rhymes:The Ranter." It only contained one poem, namely "The Ranter." So when the "Corn Law Rhymes" proper was published in 1831, it was technically the 2nd edition of the work. However, the publication date of the "Corn Law Rhymes" is always given as 1831.
A Beginner's Guide to The Poems
of Ebenezer Elliott
In order to appreciate the work of any poet, the reader needs an understanding of what shaped the development of the poet and a knowledge of the writer’s aims. In looking back at the poems of the Corn Law Rhymer, these points are vital since the Rhymer’s verse was written nearly two hundred years ago, and the reader does not understand the context of his life & thoughts. In effect, it is essential to read the biographical material first before dipping into the poems. If you begin by delving into the verse, you may get very little from it.
Literary critics do not rank the Rotherham poet among the stars of English poetry such as Milton & Wordsworth, nor even among lesser ranks such as Hardy & Southey. Truth is, these highbrow commentators dismiss Elliott. Professor Ian Jack’s comments are typical: “Yet while the work of the Corn Law Rhymer is of great interest to the social historian, it is of little account as poetry.”
The poet himself volunteered negative thoughts about his work claiming that it was of little worth: “the strongest proof it will not live is the fact that it is dead already.” In addition in 1840 Elliott confessed: “The truth is, I am not a poet. The thoughts of genuine poets flow without effort, as from a fountain; I have to pump from mine, and the well is not my own.” The last ten years of the Rhymer’s life were riddled with illness & depression which helps put Elliott’s negativity into perspective - he was looking at his poetry through misery glasses!
Elliott’s “the well is not my own” revelation appears to be valid. He was self-taught, learning how to write verse by studying the work of other poets. Modern critics point out comparisons with John Clare, Thomas Hood & George Crabbe, while the Manchester Guardian saw Elliott as “the Burns of the manufacturing city.”
The leading critic of the 1830s was Thomas Carlyle who remarked of Elliott: “We praise him for his originality, yet there is a certain amount of imitation in him, a tang of the circulating libraries.” As has been suggested already, Carlyle’s point is very possible since Elliott knew his limitations: “I cannot like Byron and Montgomery pour poetry from my heart as from an unfailing fountain.” Yes, poetry was hard work for the Rhymer & it was natural in these circumstances to turn to others for inspiration as the poet himself admitted: “Some of my finest thoughts come from the minds of others, but so adapted to my own that the theft is not traced.”
Two more names should be added to the list of writers who influenced Elliott. Milton was a great favourite, and the epic nature of Milton’s work was surely a factor in the great scale of some of Elliott’s poems. Nor should Robert Southey be discounted, since he, too, composed lengthy poems, and Elliott would attach great significance to the ideas of the man who taught him the art of poetry.
Thus by briefly studying Elliott’s background, we have already gained some insights into his work. We can go further. Given that the Corn Law Rhymer wrote verse for fifty years, we can deduce that he was a single-minded character. Consider also that Elliott was running an iron & steel business & had a large family. We must credit the man with incredible energy as well as a strong will to succeed with his literary endeavours. If we add to this formula that Elliott was a dunce at school, we cannot but feel admiration for such a success with poetry against all the odds. Poetry is not an easy task. I can’t write it. You probably can’t either. Very few people can. Elliott did. Nearly two hundred years later, there is a growing interest in the lines the Rhymer composed - and that is remarkable.
Ebenezer Elliott is important as a poet in a number of ways:-
Listed below are some of the themes that are to be found in the poems of the Corn Law Rhymer:-
There are around three hundred and fifteen poems in the Poetical Works of Ebenezer Elliott. So where does the reader begin? It’s probably more rewarding to start with the shorter poems, as they are more accessible. This is the practice followed here in this tour of the works of the Corn Law Rhymer.
Elliott’s poems often seem naive or archaic to the modern reader who gets the impression that Elliott is struggling to write verse - the more he wrestles, the worse he becomes! When the Rhymer writes with less concern about being poetical, he is much more effective. Try reading some of the following poems.
Here are two epigrams: the first one is political & witty. Wit is not often found with the bard! Nor is brevity for that matter!
What is a communist? One who hath
For equal division of unequal earnings:
Idler, or bungler, or both, he is willing
To fork out his penny, and pocket your shilling.
The second epigram is of a similar vein; it deals with Free Trade & equality - two of Elliott’s favourite themes.
Free Trade means work for beef, not bone;
It means that men are brothers;
That every man should have his own,
And nobody another’s.
As a business man, Elliott had no time for people who did not believe in hard work - as can be deduced from the two epigrams. Yet even as a businessman, he wanted people to have equality & the means to afford meat "not bone." An unusual combination of attitudes, perhaps. This paradox placed Elliott in an unusual position for a poet - he was using poetry for political purposes which was frowned on; he was striving for revolutionary changes in society, but as a businessman he cried out for Free Trade & better prospects for traders. Prof Asa Briggs called Elliott "the poet of economic revolution" while Elliott himself observed: "I claim to be a pioneer of the greatest, the most beneficial, the only crimeless Revolution, which man has yet seen. I also claim to be the poet of that Revolution - the Bard of Freetrade; and through the prosperity, wisdom and loving-kindness which Free-trade will ultimately bring, the Bard of Universal Peace." A piece of idealistic (and long-winded) self promotion, but also an interesting commentary on the man.
Family matters were important to Elliott, too, & sparked poignant lines on the death of loved ones. The death of his son, Thomas, was painfully recorded in “Thomas” while the death of another son was treated more sentimentally in the poem “William.” Both poems are direct & simple, something fairly rare in the Rotherham poet. “Love Strong In Death” is another example of the Corn Law Rhymer at his best. These three poems could be compared with a poem Elliott wrote early in his life. “The Dying Boy To The Sloe Blossom” is about the death of Elliott’s brother William & is an expression of real grief, but it is dressed up with Romantic notions which make it less effective than the simpler poems he wrote about his own children. The poem also hints at an early death for the poet.
“To Fanny Ann” is another short poem worth reading. It is about duty & his daughter:-
As the flower bloweth,
As the stream floweth,
Daughter of beauty,
Do thou thy duty.
What, though the morrow
May dawn in sorrow?
Ev’n as light hasteth,
Darkness, too, wasteth:
Morn then discloses,
Raindrops on roses!
Daughter of beauty,
What, then, is duty?
Time says, “Death knoweth!”
Death says, “Time showeth!”
In addition, Elliott shows in the poem “Woman” an enlightened view (for his time) of the role of women.
The Rhymer valued his nature poems more highly than the political ones, as did many of his contemporaries. Probably the best example of the poet’s nature poems is “To The Bramble Flower.”
To the Bramble Flower
While silent showers are falling slow
Another well known poem which combines nature with poverty is “British Rural Cottages In 1842.” This was written later in life after Elliott had moved to the countryside where he found just as much poverty & misery as he had in the town.
British Rural Cottages In 1842
One of Elliott’s last poems was probably his most enduring. Written for music in 1847, “The People’s Anthem” first appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Review in 1848. With its refrain “God save the people!” the poem parodies the national anthem & stridently demands support for ordinary people. “When wilt thou save the people?” it thunders “not kings and lords.” God must save lowly folk from despair & misery. As the poem can also be seen as a criticism of God, some churches refused to use hymn books which contained the poem, despite its huge popularity. In notes on the poem, Elliott demanded that the vote be given to responsible householders. He of course was one. “The People’s Anthem” was a great favourite for many years, and even in the 1920s Edward Bardsley of Rotherham suggested that Elliott’s poem qualified the Rhymer to be designated Poet Laureate of the League of Nations!
THE PEOPLE'S ANTHEM
(Written for music at the request of W.T.
& usually sung to the tune "Commonwealth")
When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of mercy! when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, oh, God, are they!
Let them not pass, like weeds, away!
Their heritage a sunless day!
God! save the people!
Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, oh, Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
"No!" say thy mountains; "No!" thy skies
"Man's clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard, instead of sighs."
God, save the people!
When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of Mercy! when?
The people, Lord, the people!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God! save the people! thine they are,
Thy children, as thy angels fair:
Save them from bondage, and despair!
God, save the people!
The poem illustrates two features of the poet: firstly he has taken another writer's work & re-worked it in his own way - something he often did. Secondly, in implying the monarchy was not worth saving, Elliott demonstrates his truculent & courageous nature. In 1847 the royal family were held in more esteem than they are today, and many important people would have seen the poem to be in poor taste, but Elliott did not care!
Moira Habberjam recalls the poem was often sung at morning assembly when she was at grammar school on Tyneside during the last war. She & her friends always used to find singing the anthem an uplifting experience, but Moira remembers the penultimate line being "From vice, oppression and despair." This version was included in the school hymn book. (Other versions appeared in different hymnals).
In 1925 the poem appeared on a promotional record issued by Lansbury's Labour Weekly, a radical newspaper run by George Lansbury, MP. On the record the poem was entitled "God Save The People" & was sung by Mr Rufus John. The other side of the record had a song called "England Arise!" The song (also sung by Rufus) was written by the Sheffield socialist & visionary, Edward Carpenter. [This information was kindly supplied by Lawson Skuse of Newport].
"The People's Anthem" was also to feature in the rock musical "Godspell."
The Corn Law Rhymer composed many poems rooted in the topography of South Yorkshire. One of the best is “Farewell To Rivilin” where the poet regrets leaving a favoured spot by a Sheffield stream when he moved to Great Houghton. Another poem worth a look for its local setting is about the River Dearne. It is called “Sonnet” & begins with the line “From cloud-swept Snowgate, Dearne.” Or how about the nostalgic “Thybergh,” a nice simple poem? “Roch Abbey” was written when Elliott revisited Roche Abbey & was feeling sorry for himself. He was accompanied by his friend, Charles Reece Pemberton (mentioned in the poem), who was a Shakespearean actor & lecturer. Pemberton was also the subject of a poem called “Poor Charles.” “Retrospection” is a short & effective piece which uses a dominant theme of the later years: looking back with nostalgia or looking forward to old age with dejection:-
World of my boyhood! art thou what thou
Seen through the melancholy mist of years,
Thy woods a pale diminish’d shadow cast
O’er thoughts grown grey, and feelings dimm’d with tears.
Our spirits, biggen’d by their griefs and fears,
Sadden and dwindle, with their backward view,
All they behold. Chang’d world! thy face appears
Poor as the toy that pleas’d when life was new;
And mournful as th’inscription, trite and true,
That lingers on our little sister’s grave.
Roch Abbey! Canklow! Aldwark! if I crave,
Now, a boy’s joy, from some lone flower’s deep blue,
Will your loved flowers assume a pensive hue?
Or smile as once they smiled, still growing where they grew?
(* “biggened” is a dialect word meaning grew bigger)
An unusual poem for Elliott is “Plaint.” This is stark, mysterious & repetitive. It was written very late in life when Elliott was in lots of pain & was looking forward to death. He wrote the poem trying to forget about the pain he was suffering. Verse 1 describes the act of passing over to the other side.
Dark, deep, and cold the current
O’er its sad gloom still
comes and goes
Why shrieks for help yon wretch,
Though myriads go with him who
For all must go where no wind
Yet why should he who shrieking
Alone with God, where no wind
O shoreless Deep, where no wind
Another repetitive poem which also deals with dying is “Song” which begins “They say I’m old.” The poem shows a sense of humour, something normally missing in the Rotherham poet.
“The Year Of Seeds” was a volume of fifty sonnets which appeared in 1848; some of the sonnets are of good quality, namely “The footprints of departed life remain” (Sonnet 24), “I dreamed that God was silence” (Sonnet 39), “The morning of the last day of the year” (Sonnet 45) and "We are not lonely, Kinderscout!" (Sonnet 28). Two of these sonnets are shown below:-
The footprints of departed life remain
For hours, or years, or age-long years of years,
On sand, clay, stone. Thus, chroniclers of tears
Die, but not so Time's History of Pain.
Rooted on graves, Truth bears a living flower!
Man may forgive, but wounds their scars retain
As warnings! and the Powers of Good ordain
That to forget shall not be in our power.
For worst ills, too, have roots: they are the fruit
Of plotted action worn to habitude;
And the grey dynasties of Force might live,
Safe in their privilege of fraud and feud,
If agony died recordless and mute,
And to forget were easy as forgive.
We are not lonely, Kinderscout! I stand
Here, with thy sire, and gaze, with him and thee,
On desolation. This is liberty!
I want no wing, to lift me from the land,
But look, soul-fetter’d, on the wild and grand.
Oh! that the dungeon’d of the earth were free
As these fix’d rocks, whose summits bare command
Yon cloud to stay, and weep for Man, with me!
Is this, then, solitude? To feel our hearts
Lifted above the world, yet not above
The sympathies of brotherhood and love?
To grieve for him who from the right departs?
And strive, in spirit, with the martyr’d good?
“Is this to be alone?” Then, welcome solitude.
The poet was constantly thinking he was dying (this also was the subject of Sonnet 45), so it is appropriate to end this section on Elliott’s best poems by directing the reader to two poems where the Rotherham poet bids farewell to his earthly stay. “Last Lines” was dictated to his daughter when the Rhymer was on his death bed & was too weak to handle a pen:-
Thy notes, sweet Robin, soft as dew,
Heard soon or late, are dear to me;
To music I could bid adieu,
But not to thee!
When from my heart Earth’s lifeful
Shall pass away, no more to be,
Oh! Autumn’s primrose, Robin’s song,
Return to me!
The poem is simple, but displays - right at the end of the Corn Law Rhymer’s life - his continued interest in nature. The final poem in this section of short poems by the Poet of the Poor is called “A Poet’s Epitaph.” It skilfully summarises Elliott’s qualities & shows how he wanted people to remember him.
Stop, Mortal! Here thy brother lies,
The Poet of the Poor.
His books were rivers, woods and skies,
The meadow and the moor,
His teachers were the torn hearts’ wail,
The tyrant, and the slave,
The street, the factory, the jail,
The palace – and the grave!
The meanest thing, earth’s feeblest worm,
He fear’d to scorn or hate;
And honour’d in a peasant’s form
The equal of the great.
But if he loved the rich who make
The poor man’s little more,
Ill could he praise the rich who take
From plunder’d labour’s store.
A hand to do, a head to plan,
A heart to feel and dare –
Tell man’s worst foes, here lies the man
Who drew them as they are.
Elliott’s longer poems
The poems just discussed were recommended as good examples of Elliott’s art - they were short & accessible. However, Elliott’s long & ambitious poems are hard work for the reader: they meander for page after page with the Rhymer having problems sustaining quality & content. The poems were well received in Elliott’s day, and they remain among the poet’s better known pieces: their very length making them formidable creations! The long poems are of some interest to Elliott enthusiasts & to those interested in the social conditions of the times. Yet hidden away in these torrents of verse are islands of sarcasm & anger together with interesting revealed reefs of social commentary.
The Rhymer’s longest poem by far is the “Village Patriarch” (1829) which numbers more than 100 pages. It contains 10 books each of several parts. Enoch Wray is a blind man who reflects on poverty & the harshness of life. Books 3 & 5 are probably the most rewarding, but the following passage (typical of the Rhymer’s sentiments) comes from Book 9:-
O ye hard hearts
that grind the poor, and crush
Their honest pride, and drink their blood in wine,
And eat their children’s bread without a blush,
Willing to wallow in your pomp, like swine,
Why do you wear the human form divine?
A better poem was published in 1833. “The Splendid Village” is 30 pages long & is dedicated to King William the Fourth (Elliott experienced the reigns of George the Third, George the Fourth & Queen Victoria as well). The subject is again life among the poor. The poem was published at a time when the poet was disillusioned after the Reform Bill failed to include provisions to repeal the Corn Laws. Elliott stated that “the poem was a product of a land of misery, of wretched poor & wretch-making rich!”
The Corn Law Rhymes
The “Corn Law Rhymes” of 1831 made Elliott’s reputation
& were extremely popular. In fact, his name became synonymous with the "Corn
Law Rhymes," a fact which according to the lecturer E. R. Seary did Elliott
“scant justice.” Nevertheless, the Corn Law Rhymer label did stick, and the
“Corn Law Rhymes” are worthy of study.
An artwork erected on a Rotherham roundabout in 2009. "Harvest" by Martin Heron is a tribute to Elliott and celebrates the "Corn Law Rhymes" with ears of corn blowing in the wind. Cost £62,000.
In examining the “Poetical Works” it is surprising that over 20 poems from the “Corn Law Rhymes” are missing including such fine poems as “The Jacobin’s Prayer” and “The Black Hole Of Calcutta.” The “Corn Law Hymns” are also excluded. The latter were not liked by the Church - and, as the editor of the “Poetical Works” was a clergyman, naturally he elected to omit them. He also excluded other poems that he found distasteful. The editor was Edwin Elliott, son of Ebenezer, and it is clear he did not view his father’s output as sacrosanct. For more on the "Corn Law Hymns," see "Ebenezer Elliott as a writer of hymns."
Elliott frequently sent poems to the Sheffield Independent newspaper following a recommendation by Robert Southey to submit his verse to newspapers in order to get published. Editor of the Independent was Thomas Asline Ward who was a friend of the poet through church. Asline Ward had a hand in promoting the “Corn Law Rhymes” giving them to a distinguished visitor, Dr John Bowring, MP . Bowring (later knighted) then spoke enthusiastically to William Wordsworth about “a wonderful poet of Sheffield, not Montgomery but a new name.” Bowring also passed the poems to another writer, Edward Bulwer Lytton who reviewed them in the New Monthly Review.
Another person influential in Elliott’s rise to fame was Thomas Carlyle, the eminent critic, who reviewed the work in the Edinburgh Review: “Here is an earnest truth-speaking man; no theoriser, but a practical man of work and endeavour, full of sufferance and endurance ... Strong thoughts are not wanting, beautiful thoughts; strong and beautiful expressions of thought.” Carlyle also remarked: “here is a man who can handle both pen and hammer like a man.” While Carlyle took much interest in Elliott's poems, it was not all praise, since he described Elliott as “an unfortunate imitator of Crabbe” & suggested that the Rhymer concentrate on prose rather than verse. Carlyle also objected to Elliott’s “pert snappishness” & to his discourtesy. We should not give too much attention to these negative remarks as Elliott was attacking those circles who could afford to subscribe to literary journals. Naturally, reviewers did not take too kindly to blatant attacks on their wealthy patrons.
In his “Preface To The Corn Law Rhymes” Elliott expressed surprise at his success and, faced with criticism for using poetry for political ends, defended his verse by promulgating: “All genuine poets are fervid politicians” and “All true and lasting poetry is rooted in the business of life.” The poet then ranted against the Corn Laws calling them the “suicidal anti-profit laws” which cause “the crime of inflicted want.” “Is it strange” he bellowed “that my language is fervent as a welding heat, when my thoughts are passions, that rush burning from my mind, like white-hot bolts of steel?”
The main poem in the “Corn Law Rhymes” is “The Ranter.” The poem was published in 1830
& received much interest from the critics in the next few
years. It was regarded as one of poet's best poems.
The Ranter, Miles Gordon, was based on Mr Blytheman, a Primitive Methodist preacher. Miles Gordon is a poor labourer & a fiery preacher who protests about a society which supports “Alms for the rich! - a bread-tax for the poor!” He denounces the complacency of the church: millions are starving because of the Bread Tax, but the church inhumanely supports the Corn Law. There is room however for some optimism:-
bread-tax’d slaves, have ye no hope on earth?
Yes, God from evil still educes good;
Sublime events are rushing to their birth;
Lo, tyrants by their victims are withstood!
And Freedom’s seed still grows, though steep’d in blood!
For the full text
of this excellent poem,
please click at this point
"The Black Hole of Calcutta" poses the question “What hath bread-tax done for thee?” The poem is snappy & repetitive and a good example of the Corn Law Rhymers art. (According to the lecturer, E. R. Seary, the poem “is written in a defective trochaic tetrameter.” So now you know!). With the poem’s title, Elliott chooses to compare the condition of England with the condition of the prisoners in the Black Hole of Calcutta - a telling comparison. All the country’s problems are due to the Corn Laws, and in notes on the poem the rhymer insists it is every person’s duty to fight the Bread Tax: “Whoever does not oppose the corn law, is a patron of want, national immorality, bankruptcy, child-murder, incendiary fires, midnight assassination and anarchy.”
The longer poems from the "Corn Law Rhymes"can be contrasted with a shorter rhyme from them: the brief poem “Song” is a simple & effective poem in the style of Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven.” Elliott’s poem deals with poverty & hopelessness as seen by a child:-
Child, is thy father dead?
Father is gone!
Why did they tax his bread?
God's will be done!
Mother has sold her bed;
Better to die than wed!
Where shall she lay her head?
Home we have none!
clamm'd* thrice a week,
God's will be done!
Long for work he did seek,
Work he found none.
Tears on his hollow cheek
Told what no tongue could speak:
Why did his master break?
God's will be done!
it was best,
Food we had none;
Father, with panting breast,
Groan'd to be gone:
Now he is with the blest -
Mother says death is best!
We have no place of rest -
Yes, ye have one!
*clammed = fasted
All the poems in the “Corn Law Rhymes” are worth reading. Particularly worth more than a glance are “The Jacobin’s Prayer”, “Drone v Worker” and “Caged Rats.”
For a long article on the "Corn Law Rhymes" by Robert Southey, click here
For a brief time Elliott was enormously popular & his poems were even read abroad in France & in the United States, where three editions of his poems were published. He was famous as the Corn Law Rhymer, but he was also feted as “The Poet Of The Poor.” Indeed, the Chartist poet, John Watkins, observed: “He is the most honest poet the poor ever had.” William Wordsworth also approved of the Bard of Universal Peace, commenting: “None of us have done better than he has in his best ... Elliott is an extraordinary man.”
Keith Morris, 2002 &
Still in print & including much new material is:-
Ebenezer Elliott: Corn Law Rhymer & Poet of the Poor
by Keith Morris & Ray Hearne.
Rotherwood Press, Central Library, Walker Place, Rotherham, S65 1JH.
Tel 01709 823616. Price £7.50, ISBN 0 903666 95 2.
Also available from UK Amazon
"PEOPLE, POEMS & POLITICS OF EBENEZER ELLIOTT, CORN LAW RHYMER"
This book by Keith Morris is packed full with the latest research including a newly discovered letter from Elliott to William Wordsworth, a new portrait of Elliott, nine NEW poems by the Corn Law Rhymer, details of a meeting with Thomas Carlyle & many more significant findings, which call for a reassessment of "the rabble's poet." The book is a valuable resource on the Poet of the Poor & his circle including James Montgomery, Robert Southey, Lord Houghton, Samuel Smiles, William Howitt & Thomas Asline Ward.
This study of the Poet of the Poor is limited to 54 copies,
each numbered & signed. 88 pp, illus, £4.99 + post. All copies sold.
Many other poems by Ebenezer Elliott can be found on the webpages of Gerald Massey. Go to Minor Victorian Poets & Authors
& follow the links to Ebenezer Elliott and the "Corn Law Rhymes" and "Misc Poems."
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