The Song of the Shirt – Hannah Harvey

The SONG OF THE SHIRT  Satire or Serious?

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

“Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof! 10
And work — work — work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s Oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

“Work — work — work,
Till the brain begins to swim;
Work — work — work,
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset,  and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in a dream!

“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch — stitch — stitch,
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!

“Work — work — work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread — and rags.
That shattered roof — this naked floor —
A table — a broken chair —
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

“Work — work — work!
From weary chime to chime, 50
Work — work — work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand.

“Work — work — work,
In the dull December light,
And work — work — work,
When the weather is warm and bright —
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

“Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet —
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want
And the walk that costs a meal!

“Oh! but for one short hour!
A respite however brief!
No blessd leisure for Love or Hope,
But only time for Grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!”

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —

Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch, —
Would that its tone could reach the Rich! —
She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”

The Victorian Web, ‘Thomas Hood- The Song of the Shirt’. Available online: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hood/shirt.html

‘The Song of The Shirt’ written by Thomas Hood in 1843 is both a humorous satirical piece and a more serious overview of the life of a seamstress. Available firstly in Punch magazine [1] and then as a broadsheet, this song inspired paintings, such as those by Redgrave and  Rossiter, and played a part in the campaign for social reform along with other pieces of literature in the Victorian era.

Edelstein explains that ‘The Song Of The Shirt’ is one examples of ‘social themes (making) their appearance in painting in the late 1830s.’ [2] This is apparent mostly from how the song emphasises the seamstresses’ hard life as can be seen in the repetition of ‘Work, work, work’ and both graphically and hauntingly in the two lines:

‘But why do I talk of Death, that phantom of grisly bone?
I hardly fear his terrible shape, it seems so like my own.’

This rhyming couplet emphasises the seamstress’s overwork through her poor physical appearance. She lacks the wages to maintain her well-being; ‘that bread should be so dear’. This almost inhuman and mechanical seamstress’s primary focus was on her work through a need for economic gain.

Edelstein explains that this poem is satirical entertainment as well as making a serious point, and explores how the poem’s inspired Victorian painting, performances and songs, which cut across social class. They also advocated change for the workers’ conditions through a cathartic response .[3]

Richard Redgrave’s ‘The Sempstress’ is an ideologised painting only partially showing the stress and poverty the seamstress is under in Hood’s poem.[4] This romanticised seamstress wears a finer dress to the seamstress described in the song as ‘a woman sat in unwomanly rags’. She appears to be well-groomed and fed adequately, the only clue to being overworked shown in dark circles under tired eyes. This made a more favourable painting as it matches Victorian ideals of femininity. Indeed Edelstein argues paintings were unrealistic as reality would have caused shocked audiences and lost interest.[5] Therefore ‘The Song Of The Shirt’ intelligently and imaginatively allows the horrors of seamstress life to be almost smoke-screened in humour and a memorable, lively rhythm. Only on closer examination are the realities of the seamstress’s life uncovered and linked to reality as the reader wishes. The song allows female ideology of the Victorian period to be reflected through the seamstress, portrayed somewhat as a Dickens’ character, who Orwell describes ‘as objects of pity’. [6] If the idealised female could do nothing but suffer in her plight, a seamstress’s suffering effectively gained the sympathy of the readers and the listeners.

Rossiter, Charles. ‘The Song of the Shirt’, Oil on canvas, (n.d), The Art Renewal Centre Available online:http://www.artrenewal.net/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=36463&size=large Date accessed: 29th October 2015

 Charles Rossiter’s painting with the same name [7] provides another example of Victorian gender roles and ideas. This seamstress seems to be well fed, well-dressed and has light and a view of the outside world, which reflects the idealised seamstress’s working conditions. Selling these paintings reflects the Victorian working values of modesty and discipline which is seen through the seamstress’s plain black dress. However the painting as a whole further reflects ideals in Redgrave’s’ The Seamstress, shown though the confinement of the room, the misery in the seamstress’s eyes and her feminine appearance.

Available as a broadsheet at a time of rising literacy, including some of those in the working class, the message of the hardships of the seamstresses and also of other working class people’s lives spread across social classes. A female seamstress vulnerable from overwork at a time of delicacy and fragility in upper and middle class women shocked readers as feminine stereotypes were broken: ‘With fingers weary and worn, with eye-lids heavy and red’.
A broadsheet was an effective way of spreading the message of hardship amongst seamstresses, as was ‘The Song of the Shirt’ as in performance. This song is an example of the songs written about life for the working class, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum:

‘Many songs, and much of the comedy, were a comment on social conditions. They reflected working class life. Marie Lloyd’s hit ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and Don’t Dilly-Dally on the Way’ was about doing a moonlight flit to avoid paying the rent and Gus Elen’s ‘If it Wasn’t for the Houses in Between’ was about the overcrowded living conditions in London’s East End. ’[8,9,10]

This method of song writing allowed for the message to be entertaining and thus more persuasive as opposed to a pamphlet about the seamstress’s working life. The working class could relate to them as they outlined their own hardships. These songs showed how the working class survived these hardships through making light of them and gave a sense of shared community through shared problems. In terms of ‘The Song of the Shirt’ specifically, some of the working class could relate to its sentiments of poverty and overwork. Although ‘The Song of the Shirt’ as well as other songs could be seen as trivialising the seamstress’s hardships, the paintings  it inspired showed the message of seamstress hardship ran deeper and was presented in other ways within society.

‘The Song of the Shirt’ was written at the time of the industrial revolution where national wealth was a priority, and thus making items productively was of national importance. Hood was himself part of the laboring class (although in the upper section due to having been an engraver before turning to poetry ) [11] and had an understanding of the hardships laborers such as the seamstresses faced. Thus Hood was more sympathetic to their plight, seen in lines such as ‘It is not linen you’re wearing out but human creature’s lives.’ Hood sold his poem to make a profit, thus the comical poem is also relateable to the seamstress’s hardships: ‘And still with a voice of dolorous pitch, she sang the “Song of the Shirt.”’ The seamstress is respected as she sings out of  misfortune.

In a context where only the deserving poor received charity, these seamstresses had to appear deserving of charity through their good characters. Himmelfarb explains that Victorian society had a distinction of who could and who could not work. [12] Thus, as Englander notes, those unable to work deserved charity while others had to work for workhouse charity under the New Poor Law. [13] Therefore industrious and helplessly vulnerable seamstresses helped make Hood’s readers more sympathetic towards them.

Hear The Song of the Shirt as it may have been performed:

 

Hannah Harvey

References:

  1. The Victorian Web, ‘Thomas Hood- The Song of the Shirt’. Available online: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hood/shirt.html Date accessed: 5th October 2015.
  2. Edelstein, T.J. ‘They sang the ‘The Song of the Shirt’’ The Visual Iconography of the Seamstress’, Victorian Studies, 23 (1980), p. 183.
  3. Edelstein,  ‘They sang the ‘The Song of the Shirt’’, pp. 183-4.
  4. Redgrave, Richard. ‘The Sempstress’, Oil on canvas, (1846). Available online: http://www.artnet.com/artists/richard-redgrave/the-sempstress-MWRp4UzNq1EJ5iLX7d6oxA2 Date accessed: 29th October 2015; Edelstein, T.J. ‘They sang the ‘The Song of the Shirt’’, p. 185.
  5. Edelstein, ‘They sang the ‘The Song of the Shirt’’, p 196.
  6. Orwell, George. ‘Inside the Whale and Other Essays’ (1940).
  7. Rossiter, Charles. ‘The Song of the Shirt’, Oil on canvas, (n.d). Available online: http://www.artrenewal.net/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=36463&size=large Date accessed: 29th October 2015
  8. Collins, Charles and Leigh Fred W. ‘Don’t Dilly Dally (My Old Man)’ (1918). Available online: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/folk-song-lyrics/Dont_Dilly_Dally(My_Old_Man).htm Date accessed: 20th November 2015.
  9. Bateman, Edgar, and Le Brunn, George, ‘If It Wasn’t For The ‘Ouses In Between’ (1899). Available Online: http://monologues.co.uk/musichall/Songs-I/If-It-Wasnt-For-The-Houses.htm Date accessed: 20th November 2015.
  10. Victoria and Albert Museum ‘Music Hall Character Acts’ (2015) Available online: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/music-hall-character-acts/ Date accessed: 15th November 2015
  11. The Poetry Foundation, ‘Thomas Hood’ (n.d). Available online: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-hood Date accessed: 20th October 2015
  12. Himmelfarb G. ‘Idea of Poverty’, History Today, 34.4 (1984).
  13. Englander, David. Poverty and Poor Law Reform in Britain: From Chadwick to Booth, 1834-1914 (Harlow: Longman 1998).
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