It’s almost over and somehow I’ve survived. the madness. Now I can get back to blogging and writing. I’ve been pulled in so many directions the past two or three weeks I’ve hardly had time for anything but work and sleep.
I’ve mentioned many times that in my childhood, we had no access to entertainment as kids know it today. But we did have books. Lots and lots of books of all kinds and our reading was unrestricted.
Lying around from somewhere was an old book of poetry and prose. From that tome, I read many of the Victorian classics, including the one I’m sharing with you below. CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE WORKHOUSE by George R. Sims. This is a melodramatic offering in the same vein as “The Face on the Barroom Floor” by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy and The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. It paints a vivid slice-of-life picture of Victorian England and reminds us why so many found their way to America.
I’ve re-read this poem many times through the years. I’m sharing it with you today as a Christmas gift. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are. It’s a long poem, but it reads quickly. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to win the battle with WordPress in separating the stanzas. If it helps reading it, there are 8 lines per stanza.
CHRISTMAS DAY IN THE WORKHOUSE
It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,And the cold, bare walls are brightWith garlands of green and holly,And the place is a pleasant sight;For with clean-washed hands and faces,In a long and hungry lineThe paupers sit at the table,For this is the hour they dine.And the guardians and their ladies,Although the wind is east,Have come in their furs and wrappers,To watch their charges feast;To smile and be condescending,Put pudding on pauper plates.To be hosts at the workhouse banquetThey’ve paid for — with the rates.Oh, the paupers are meek and lowlyWith their “Thank’ee kindly, mum’s!'”So long as they fill their stomachs,What matter it whence it comes!But one of the old men mutters,And pushes his plate aside:“Great God!” he cries, “but it chokes me!For this is the day she died!”
The guardians gazed in horror,The master’s face went white;“Did a pauper refuse the pudding?”“Could their ears believe aright?”Then the ladies clutched their husbands,Thinking the man would die,Struck by a bolt, or something,By the outraged One on high.But the pauper sat for a moment,Then rose ‘mid silence grim,For the others had ceased to chatterAnd trembled in every limb.He looked at the guardians’ ladies,Then, eyeing their lords, he said,“I eat not the food of villainsWhose hands are foul and red:“Whose victims cry for vengeanceFrom their dark, unhallowed graves.”“He’s drunk!” said the workhouse master,“Or else he’s mad and raves.”“Not drunk or mad,” cried the pauper,“But only a haunted beast,Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,Declines the vulture’s feast.“I care not a curse for the guardians,And I won’t be dragged away;Just let me have the fit out,It’s only on Christmas DayThat the black past comes to goad me,And prey on my burning brain;I’ll tell you the rest in a whisper —I swear I won’t shout again.“Keep your hands off me, curse you!Hear me right out to the end.You come here to see how paupersThe season of Christmas spend;.You come here to watch us feeding,As they watched the captured beast.Here’s why a penniless pauperSpits on your paltry feast.“Do you think I will take your bounty,And let you smile and thinkYou’re doing a noble actionWith the parish’s meat and drink?Where is my wife, you traitors —The poor old wife you slew?Yes, by the God above me,My Nance was killed by you!‘Last winter my wife lay dying,Starved in a filthy den;I had never been to the parish —I came to the parish then.I swallowed my pride in coming,For ere the ruin came,I held up my head as a trader,And I bore a spotless name.“I came to the parish, cravingBread for a starving wife,Bread for the woman who’d loved meThrough fifty years of life;And what do you think they told me,Mocking my awful grief,That ‘the House’ was open to us,But they wouldn’t give ‘out relief’.“I slunk to the filthy alley —‘Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —And the bakers’ shops were open,Tempting a man to thieve;But I clenched my fists together,Holding my head awry,So I came to her empty-handedAnd mournfully told her why.“Then I told her the house was open;She had heard of the ways of that,For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,And up in her rags she sat,Crying, ‘Bide the Christmas here, John,We’ve never had one apart;I think I can bear the hunger —The other would break my heart.’“All through that eve I watched her,Holding her hand in mine,Praying the Lord and weeping,Till my lips were salt as brine;I asked her once if she hungered,And as she answered ‘No’ ,T’he moon shone in at the window,Set in a wreath of snow.“Then the room was bathed in glory,And I saw in my darling’s eyesThe faraway look of wonderThat comes when the spirit flies;And her lips were parched and parted,And her reason came and went.For she raved of our home in Devon,Where our happiest years were spent.“And the accents, long forgotten,Came back to the tongue once more.For she talked like the country lassieI woo’d by the Devon shore;Then she rose to her feet and trembled,And fell on the rags and moaned,And, ‘Give me a crust — I’m famished —For the love of God!’ she groaned.“I rushed from the room like a madmanAnd flew to the workhouse gate,Crying, ‘Food for a dying woman!’And the answer came, ‘Too late.’They drove me away with curses;Then I fought with a dog in the streetAnd tore from the mongrel’s clutchesA crust he was trying to eat.“Back through the filthy byways!Back through the trampled slush!Up to the crazy garret,Wrapped in an awful hush;My heart sank down at the threshold,And I paused with a sudden thrill.For there, in the silv’ry moonlight,My Nance lay, cold and still.“Up to the blackened ceiling,The sunken eyes were cast —I knew on those lips, all bloodless,My name had been the last;She called for her absent husband —O God! had I but known! —Had called in vain, and, in anguish,Had died in that den — alone.“Yes, there, in a land of plenty,Lay a loving woman dead,Cruelly starved and murderedFor a loaf of the parish bread;At yonder gate, last Christmas,I craved for a human life,You, who would feed us paupers,What of my murdered wife!”‘There, get ye gone to your dinners,Don’t mind me in the least,Think of the happy paupersEating your Christmas feast;And when you recount their blessingsIn your smug parochial way,Say what you did for me, too,Only last Christmas Day.”