“The Song of the Shirt” is a lyric poem that first appeared unsigned in the 1843 Christmas number of Punch magazine. The poem impersonates a needlewoman living in poverty, purporting to quote her joyless work song, which she sings while she mends clothes “With fingers weary and worn, / With eyelids heavy and red” (42).
Song and lyric (genre)
Personal, subjective, and relatively short, a lyric poem usually purports to express the intense emotions of a single speaker, addressed to an audience that is silent, unresponsive, or even absent. “Song of the Shirt” is an example of a Victorian lyric poem that describes, quotes, or otherwise claims to represent a song, although there is no original song beyond the poem itself.
James William Johnson’s entry on lyric in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics clarifies that the “lyric of emotion or feeling” is “the most subjective or ‘internal’ strain of modern lyrical poetry” in the Western tradition. It may be subdivided into three types: the sensual lyric of emotion (Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Baudelaire, Whitman, Thomas); the imaginative or intellectualized lyric of emotion (Rilke, Dickinson, Auden, Larkin); and the mystic lyric of emotion (Herbert, Traherne, Blake, Hopkins, Yeats).
Seamstress literature (context)
The poem’s author, Thomas Hood, was not the first to bring attention to the suffering of needlewomen in early Victorian London. Enough essays, poems, and letters were written on the subject to warrant Lynn Mae Alexander’s category of “seamstress literature” (52). This trend began with a police report printed in the Times on 26 October 1843, which described “a wretched-looking woman named Biddell, with a squalid-half starved infant at her breast.” Henry Moses, a “slopseller” or seller of cheap clothing, had contracted Biddell to sew trousers for seven pence a pair. Seamstresses like Biddell generally paid for their own needles and thread, reducing their already meager profits, and sometimes also paid deposits on the fabric they borrowed, so that their employers were secure against the fabric being damaged, lost, or stolen. Biddell, eventually finding herself in debt, was forced to pawn some of her finished work in order to feed herself and two young children. The Times police report noted that seamstresses could be threatened with arrest for pawning garments they had been contracted to make (Alexander 52). On 27 October, the Times published two more pieces on the subject: a factual article called “The White Slaves of London,” and an editorial which concluded that a seamstress in London was, from “every moral point of view, as much a slave as any negro who ever toiled under as cruel taskmasters in the West Indies” (4).
Punch reprinted the report from 26 October with the title “Famine and Fashion!” and suggested that “Moses and his class [be] doomed to walk the streets of London arrayed in their choicest “slops” (blood-stained as the shirt of Nessus, but without its avenging qualities,) branded SEVEN PENCE, that men might know how they gained their sleekness!” The editors also included a poem, “Moses and Co.,” which attacks customers who shop for fashionable yet inexpensive clothing, without considering that the garments are “by Hunger’s haggard fingers neatly sewn,” and “begemm’d by some poor widow’s tear.” Hood’s “Song of the Shirt” appeared a week later. The poem was Punch’s first great success, temporarily tripling the magazine’s circulation. Nearly every British newspaper, beginning with the Times, promptly reprinted the poem; for example, it appeared in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Mercury on Christmas Day, and in Berrow’s Worcester Journal on December 28. The poem was also pirated as “catch pennies” (street literature), printed on handkerchiefs, set to music, and dramatized (Alexander 52).
Inspired by the poem, the Society for Protection and Employment of Distressed Needlewomen in London was formed in 1843. However, according to Sampson Low’s Charities of London (1850), the Society’s “operations have not taken apparently any practical turn, beyond a slight amount distributed as pecuniary assistance in last balance sheet, amounting to £20 only, and an amount paid for work of raiment for the destitute, £180; and at the present time its resources appear so limited, as to threaten virtual suspension” (161). Other societies included the Association for the Aid and Protection of Dress-makers and Milliners, and The Dress-makers’ and Milliners’ Provident and Benevolent Institution.
Punch magazine, the radical years
Punch magazine was established in 1841, with the full title Punch, or the London Charivari. A “charivari” is figuratively “a confused, discordant medley of sounds; a babel of noise,” with the literal meaning of “a serenade of ‘rough music,’ with kettles, pans, tea-trays, and the like, used in France, in mockery and derision of incongruous or unpopular marriages, and of unpopular persons generally” (OED).
Punch was a miscellaneous magazine during the Victorian period, and so it is difficult to categorize it without oversimplifying its contents. Patrick Leavy writes that earlier satirical papers “had an unsavoury reputation for extreme political partisanship, open obscenity, salacious scandal, and gross personal attacks on well-known individuals. […] In the eyes of the early Victorians, Punch’s great accomplishment was to offer comicalities, leavened with satirical commentary, that could be safely read and passed around the circle” (11). Richard Altick agrees that “at first, Punch succeeded not because of what it was, but because of what it was not” (9). However, Punch too could be scathing, ribald, and political.
Punch was more politically radical in its early years, thanks to its founding editor Mark Lemon and co-founder Henry Mayhew, social reformer and author of London Labour and the London Poor (1851). Douglas Jerrold, another influential board member, pushed for the inclusion of Hood’s poem “Song of the Shirt” in the 1843 Christmas number.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845)
Thomas Hood was a literary journalist and poet who contributed to the Athenaeum, the Gem, the London Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, and Punch, or the London Charivari.
Hood’s father, also named Thomas Hood, was a Scottish publisher and bookseller. His mother, Elizabeth Sands, came from a well-known family of engravers. Hood’s family originally apprenticed him to an engraver in London. In 1815, however, he was sent to live with relatives for two years in Dundee, Scotland. While there, he began his career as a writer by contributing unsigned poems and prose to the local newspapers. By 1821, he was working at The London Magazine.
Although Hood is now famous for writing “The Song of the Shirt,” in his day he was known for comic and sentimental verse. He was fond of recounting that the first poems he wrote were melancholy odes in imitation of John Keats, and that he later became “a lively Hood for a livelihood.” In actual fact, Hood’s oeuvre diversified and developed a more serious bent as he aged. Between 1840 and 1841 he published a serial fiction, Miss Kilmansegg and her Precious Leg, which satirized vulgar displays of affluence; and the year after he published “Song of the Shirt,” he wrote two more poems protesting the poverty of the working class, “The Workhouse Clock: An Allegory” (1844) and “The Lay of the Labourer” (1844).
Hood also advocated for copyright law reform. In 1837, the Athenaeum published three essays (all signed by Hood) with the title “Copyright and Copywrong.” Hood deplored the fact that writers were vulnerable against charges of libel, while also defenseless against opportunistic plagiarism and piracy (Seville 205-6). He spoke on the behalf of other writers when he gave support to Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd’s copyright bill: “instead of being nobodies with nothing, we shall be, if not freeholders, a sort of copyholders, with something between the sky and the centre, that we can call our own” (306). Many years later, Punch borrowed Hood’s title for a less serious contribution to the debate: “Copyright and Copywrong. The Dramatist who dramatizes his neighbour’s Novel against his will, is less a Playwright than a Plagiary” (6).
Alexander, Lynn Mae. Women, Work, and Representation: Needlewoman in Victorian Art and Literature. Athens: Ohio U P, 2003. Print.
[N.B. Alexander records the date of the police report on Biddell incorrectly as 1834, not 1843.]
Altick, Richard D. Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841-1851. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1997.
Johnson, James William. “Lyric.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Brogan, Preminger, et al. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1993. Literature Online: Criticism and Reference. Web.
Charivari, n. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web.
Flint, Joy. “Hood, Thomas.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web.
Hood, Thomas. “Copyright and Copywrong.” Athenaeum [London] 29 Apr. 1837: 304-6. Print.
Leary, Patrick. The Punch Brotherhood: Table Talk and Print Culture in Mid-Victorian London. London: British Library, 2010. Print.
Low, Sampson. The Charities of London: Comprehending the Benevolent, Educational, and Religious Institutions. Their Origin and Design, Progress, and Present Position. London: Low, 1850. Print.
Seville, Catherine. Literary Copyright Reform in Early Victorian England: The Framing of the 1842 Copyright Act. Cambridge: Campbridge U P, 1999. Print.
Unsigned [Hood, Thomas]. “The Song of the Shirt.” Punch, or the London Charivari [London]. 16 December 1843: 42. 19th Century UK Periodicals. Web.
[N.B. This number of Punch has been incorrectly digitized: the page number (260) is presumably from a bound volume edition of several numbers, and the date is listed as “unknown.”]