Oh! Mr. Malthus!

Oh! Mr. Malthus!

The Hickonomics of Hearth and Heart

Original Text
Stephen Leacock, Hellements of Hickonomics in Hiccoughs of Verse Done in our Social Planning Mill (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936): 3942. PS 8523 E2H4 Robarts Librray.
The Reverend Thos. Robert Malthus [1766-1834], a clergyman of the Church of England and a professor of Political Economy, in his famous Essay on Population of 1798, taught the doctrine that the numbers of mankind are always pressing on the means of subsistence. This easy theory explained poverty and want in the comfortable terms of inevitable economic law. The complacent rich could shake their heads at the improvident poor. The doctrine darkened human life for over a hundred years. Only the oncoming of the age of abundance shows that the source of poverty is elsewhere. Our food increases faster than we do. Wordsworth's We Are Seven, with its comforting explanation of the death of cottage children, appeared in the same year as the Essay.
2Mother, hold me tight!
3Look! It's Mr. Malthus, Mother!
4Hide me out of sight."
5        This was the cry of little Jane
6        In bed she moaning lay,
7        Delirious with Stomach Pain,
8        That would not go away.
9All because her small Existence
10Over-pressed upon Subsistence;
11Human Numbers didn't need her;
12Human Effort couldn't feed her.
13        Little Janie didn't know
15        Poor Wee Janie had never done
16        Course Economics No. 1;
17        Never reached in Education
18        Theories of Population, --
19        Theories which tend to show
20        Just how far our Food will go,
21        Mathematically found
22        Just enough to go around.
23        This, my little Jane, is why
24        Pauper Children have to die.
25        Pauper Children underfed
26        Die delirious in Bed;
27        Thus at Malthus's Command
29            Jane who should have gently died
30            Started up and wildly cried, --
31"Look, mother, look, he's there again
32I see him at the Window Pane,
33Father, -- don't let him, -- he's behind
34That shadow on the window blind, --"
35        In vain the anxious parents soothe, --
36        What can avail their useless Love?
37        "Darling, lie down again; don't mind;
38        Branches are moving in the Wind."
39        With panting Breath, with Eyes that stare,
40        Again she cries, "He's there, he's there!"
41The frightened Parents look, aghast,
42Is it that something really passed?
43What is it that they seem to scan,
44Ghost or Abstraction, Dream or Man? --
46        The crooked Fingers all a-grip,
47        The sunken Face, cadaverous,
48        The dress, Ah, God deliver us!
49        What awful Sacrilege is that?
51        The Costume black and sinister,
52            The dress of God's own minister!
53        What fiend could ever urge a Man
54        To personate a Clergyman!
55The Father strides with angry fist
56"Out, out! you damned Economist!"
57His wife restrains his threatening Paw, --
58        "William, it's economic Law!"
59She shrieks, -- "Oh William! don't you know
60The Geometric Ratio? --
61William, God means it for the best
62Our Darling's taken! we've transgressed -- "
63    And crying, "Two times two makes four,"
64She crashes swooning to the Floor.
65        And when her Senses come again
66        Janie had passed from mortal Pain
67        And scowling Malthus had moved on
68        Murm'ring, "That's one more Infant gone,"
69        To other Windows, one by one; --
70        Later he came and took their Son.
71        With Jane and John gone, out of seven,
72        They kept at five and just broke even.
73        "Mary," the chastened Father said,
74        "I feel God's wisdom; two are dead
75        The world has only food for five,
77        She sobbed, -- "We'll do it if we can!
78        But, oh that awful Malthus Man."
80He happened to be out, not late, just after sunset, when
81He met a little cottage Girl, she was eight years old, (she said),
82Her Hair was thick, he saw, with Curls that clustered on her Head;
83And he recalls in pious Verse the Interview she gave
84While sitting eating Porridge on her Sister Janie's Grave,
85Reciting with her Baby Voice and placid Infant's Breath
86The orthodox complacent Thought on pauper Children's death;
87And thus the plump and happy Child, her Belly full of food,
88Drowsy with Sunset Porridge smiled, -- the World was pretty good.
89        With her little Belly fully
90        Satisfied, her Mind got woolly;
91        She was just like all the rest
92        Couldn't stand an acid Test,
93        Took her thoughts too near the Place
94        Where Digestion had its Base.
95        What the Child mistook for Knowledge
96        Just fresh air and lots of Porridge, --
97        Here is where Biology
99But Willie, Willie Wordsworth, if again you walk the Street
100Just meet a little Cottage Girl, and get the thing complete.
101You'll find her just as charming as a Child upon a Grave,
102And her Hair in Curl is permanent with what she calls a Wave.
103She needs no babbling Innocence, no baby Words to show,
104The danger spots of little Tots in moving Ratio.
105That population is a Thing that all the world must shun,
106She'll show you as a Theorem in Economics One, --
108And all the world got overfed, and all the World got slack.
110And Coffee Beans went up in Flames beside ungathered Corn
111And Melons floated out to Sea and Hogs were left unborn,
112And beer rolled down the Tennessee and California Wine
113Was used as Blood for Hollywood, and Rye thrown in the Rhine
114        And Super-Products in a Stack, --
115        But stop, a bit, we must turn back.
116Turn back to Malthus as he walked o'er English Fields and Downs
117And walked at night the crooked Streets of crooked English Towns,
119A hundred years his Shadow fell, a hundred Years to lie,
120The Shadow on the Window Pane when Malthus' Ghost went by.
121He chuckled as he passed at night God's Acre filled with Dead;
122The little Graves were packed as tight as Paupers in a Bed.
123But he never heard the little wings that rustled overhead,
124        Or heard the Voices in the Air
125        Of unborn Souls lamenting there.
126He wandered in the Summer Lanes when all the World was green,
127And he never heard the Wedding Bells of Brides that might have been,
128Tall English Flowers that drooped and fell and withered on the stem,
129Victims of Malthus' evil Spell, -- what should he know of them?
130In rustled Silk and Lavender the Garden Path they trod
131And listened where the Hollyhocks and tall Delphiniums nod,
132And whisper to the blushing Face behind the Bonnet hid,
133Of Wedding Bells that were to ring, -- that were, but never did.
134And he never knew the empty Homes with angry Quarrels rent,
135He never knew the blighted Souls, out of their Nature bent,
136The blighted life of Man and Wife where Children are not sent,
137        And Love's Illusion wears away
138        And Single Self comes back to stay.
139He scowled to see the Working Class was disobedient still,
140The teaching that the Gentry grasped was lost on Jane and Bill,
141        And round the Slum
142        The Children come,
143            As Children ever will.
144In vain upon the Brain of Jane and Bill was cast the Thought
145That Hope of Social Gain was nil and Poverty their lot,
146        That social Betterment could not
147        Permit a Baby in the Cot.
148        "All right," says Bill, "we'll have them still,"
149        And Jane she said, "Whoi not?"
150        "I likes to see 'em, reverend sir,
151        A crawling round, and so does her;
152        We're not like Gentry Folks, you see,
153        There ain't much else for her and me."
154And all the while the World roared on, each Decade passing by,
155Machine and Power and glowing Sun to Malthus gave the Lie.
156        The silly Pedants could not see
157        Man's Food grows faster far than he.
158        The Wheat Plant easily can grow
159        A hundred grains per Seed
160        Three times a year, what, Baker, Ho!
161        How much is it you need?
162        One Buckwheat Pancake, only one,
163        Swells in three months to half a ton.
164        The Barley of a single Year
165        Would turn the Rhine to Lager Beer.
166        The oyster with a million Lives,
167        If each potential Oyster thrives,
168        As with Encouragement they do,
169        Can turn the World to Oyster Stew,
170            Our social Future only wants
171            Bigger and Brighter Restaurants.
172Thus from a hundred dusty Chairs in dusty Schools of Thought,
173Professors' talks with Boards and Chalks the Work of Malthus taught,
174            Explained the social Danger hid
175            In each superfluous extra Kid.
176            Each Decade as it moved along
177            Rehearsed the wearisome Sing Song.
178"When Numbers on Subsistence press then Wages cannot rise,
179Humanity is in Distress because it multiplies.
180No hope of social Betterment can ever be made good
181Because the Wicked Working Class will eat up all the Food.
182            So if the Poor are here to stay
183            We need not worry anyway,
185            And Quack, quack, quack, and there you are!"
186With every Decade more and more two Giant Forms were seen
187To stride across the Universe as Power and as Machine,
188And little Man beside them ran, knee-high he ran between,
189        All ignorant he was of why,
190        Or what these Things might mean.
191        Their Eyes of Brass, their Arms of Steel,
192        That Grip and Drive the Plunging Wheel,
193        That tear the Forest, burst the Soil,
194        And make the cloven Ocean boil,
195        Turn the white torrent's foaming Might
196        To strike with Death or blaze with Light.
197            -- What is the meaning, Little Man,
198            And have you got your little Plan?
199            "Ask teacher?" My dear sir, alack!
200            Your Teacher only says, "Quack, quack."
201Thus forward drove the World, divorced from any one Control,
202Each Man might grasp a little Part, no man could view the Whole.
203        The Giants drove it like the Wind
204        And Little Man clung on behind,
205        Picture of Terror and Despair
206        His Coat Tails flying in the Air.
207        Faster and faster, on they sped,
208        Machine and Power went mad, saw red,
209        On Little Man fell their Attack
210        And smashed his World to Bric-a-brac, --
211Broke it with War and at its Cease,
212They turned and broke it worse with Peace,
213Broke it with overwork, and then, with myriads of Workless Men;
215        And when their Rage had spent its Shocks,
216        Left little Man upon the Rocks
217        Of Economic Paradox.
218His mournful Face and weeping Eyes
219Look on his World in mild Surprise,
222A crazy World it seems, grotesque,
223Where all his Theory is Burlesque,
224        All jig-saw Bits,
225        Where nothing Fits
226        So there he sits
227        Bereft of Wits, --
228    And murmurs through his little Hat,
229    "Will someone tell me where I'm at?"
230Start once again, O Little Man!
231Remember, when you first began,
232What a determined Cuss you were
233And how your Efforts made a Stir;
234Recall again through Time's dim haze
236With bed-room Exercise your Shape
237You raised above the Common Ape.
238You muttered to yourself, "They'll see!
239There's no Ourang-Outang in me."
240You practised every manual Trick, --
241Like how to use a pointed Stick,
242Bent down a Bough and let it go
243And grasped the notion of a Bow.
244Deep-seated in a Cocoa-tree,
245You learned to count as far as three;
246Moved into Theory, went higher,
247And saw that Heat was got from Fire.
248You did not know it, but you were
249The first Research Professor, sir,
250Contained, within your hairy Body,
252Nay, -- what is more, -- your Lot was rude
253But showed the College attitude,
254You made it an unswerving Rule
255To disregard the Common Fool,
256You overlooked the silly chaff
257Of Laughing Jackass, gay Giraffe,
258You heeded not the caustic Smile
259Of Dinosaur or Crocodile,
260Passed undisturbed the Ridicule
261Of comic Crow or haw-haw Mule, --
262        In short, in Culture's earliest Span
263        You acted like an Oxford Man.
264Their Idleness soon proved their Loss;
265You made yourself Creation's Boss
266Do it again, -- see what I mean? --
267Come Little Man! Beat the Machine.
269        Show this new Demon who is who!
270And first you have to throw away
271The stuff that led you all astray.
272Numbers are not the Bane of Man
273And numbers never yet outran, --
274... Go think it out; I'm sure you can.
275For want and Poverty may come to empty Prairie, crowded Slum, --
276            Enough, enough -- it's quite enough,
277            Get rid of all the Malthus Stuff. --
278Let's seek the Shade of Malthus out from where he walks at Night,
279And bring him up for Punishment, -- It certainly seems right;
280He that misled a hundred Years Man's Footsteps from his Path, --
281That turned our Household Joy to Tears, -- how shall he feel our Wrath?
282Shall boiling Oil reduce his Flesh to Chicken à la King,
283Would molten Lead upon his Head be pretty much the Thing?
284Ah, no! not bye-gone Cruelty his erring Soul shall harry,
285We'll fit the Punishment to Crime, make Mr. Malthus marry.
286        Ho! Reverend Robert, come and doff
287        That cleric suit; yes, take it off, --
288        Nay, never mind the leather Face
289        The faded parchment skin,
291            Another life begin!
292We'll dress him all in Love's Attire our great grandfathers knew
294Behold the Sandy Beaver Hat, the Sandy-coloured Suit
296            Enormous Buttons, made of Horn,
297            Our Wedding Bridegroom shall adorn.
298O! Hear the Bells -- that ring Ding, Dong,
300        Pop-u-la-tion for the Na-tion
301        Spells and tells its long sal-va-tion.
302Now hold the Chime a little Time,
303Malthus, the ringers stand beside
304And let us go and bring the Bride.
305She stands upon the Garden Path where she was wont to tread,
306    Eternal flowers, that know not Death, still nod beside her head.
307In rustled Silk and Lavender, a hundred Years alone,
308    Is it in Truth a Maiden's Form, or withered Frame of Bone?
309Seek not the hooded Face to scan where hides the drooping Head
310    Perchance the Curls lie damp upon the Features of the Dead;
311Perchance in place of glowing Life, now desiccated, null,
312    Earth's final Parody of Love, the Simpering of a Skull.
313Or Maid, or Ghost, or Pictured Fate
314        Let her be what she may,
315We bring her forth to join her Mate
316        This Golden Wedding Day.
317    Moving before us,
318        Singing in Chorus,
319            Golden and Glorious,
320                Time honoured Lay,
321                    Of wearing a Bonnet,
322                        A blue ribbon on it,
323                            On a Golden Wedding Day.
324        Bring on the same old Thesis
325            Of how Man Increases
326                As the Clover Blossoms blow.
327        And we'll sing such Pieces
329                And we go where Ratios go.
330        For if Man increases
331            If he never, never ceases
332                If he never, never says, "Go Slow!"
335                But it's all right -- Let er -- go.
(music dies away)


1] Leacock says the following about Malthus in his preface:
The theory of Malthus was triumphant for a hundred years. It was regarded as a melancholy truth, but as none the less true. The great American economist, Francis Walker, spoke of argument directed at it as being only the `headless arrows of beginners.' But from the first I shot my headless arrows at it, unheeded. All that is true about the Malthus stuff is that if people multiply fast enough and long enough presently there won't be standing room. But it is no explanation of the industrial poverty, the starvation and the slum of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The great collapse of the last five years has proved this to everybody. Poverty, unemployment and disaster have overwhelmed alike the city and the solitude: the world is starving in the midst of plenty: numbers have nothing to do with it. There is no population problem for humanity at large: only for the single family, that cannot place its offspring: and that problem belongs not under `numbers-and-subsistence,' but under socialorganization.

In regard to Malthus himself, I have permitted myself, in the interests of art, to clothe him with an imaginary character and appearance to suit his doctrine. It is true that Malthus, who was an ordained clergyman but lectured for the East India Company at their college at Haileybury, had a hare lip and was more or less unintelligible to his hearers. This, however, is hardly a disadvantage for a professor of political economy. But there is no reason to imagine that the reverend gentleman was cadaverous or doleful, or averse to the joys of matrimony. He married at twenty-nine and had a nurseryful of children. But Art is higher than literal truth. (vi-vii)

Leacock's subtitle conflates "hick" (country bumpkin, uneducated farmer) with "economics" and "elements." Back to Line
14] Malthus wrote: "Population ... increases in a geometrical ratio, subsistence in an arithmetical ratio" (Population i.i.14 [1798]; as quoted by OED). In an arithmetical ratio, increase occurs by a constant, e.g., 2, 4, 6, 8 ..., but the comparable geometic ratio increase would be 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 ... Back to Line
28] Political economy then held that the price of goods fluctuated according to the available supply and the rate of demand. If this demand remained steady, and if competition existed, supply would catch up to demand and the cost of goods would stabilize. Back to Line
45] cloven Lip: hare-lip. Back to Line
50] Choker: white neckerchief or colar worn by the clergy.
Shovel Hat: a broad-rimmed, stiff hat with a shovelled curve in front and back, worn by clergymen. Back to Line
76] Quintuplets: Oliva and Elzire Dionne had quintuplets on May 28, 1934, at Corbeil, Ontario. The Ontario government took the five, Annette, Emilie, Yvonne, Cecile, and Marie, away from the parents and placed them in a special hospital, where they became a multi-million-dollar tourist attraction. Unfortunately, these sisters did not do well from all this attention. See Pierre Burton, The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama (Toronto: Seal, 1978; CT 9998 .D5B47). Back to Line
79] Wordsworth: William Wordsworth, poet laureate (1770-1850), and his poem "We are Seven." Back to Line
98] Ontology: the study of being. Back to Line
107] four years ago: Leacock's preface is dated April Fool's Day, 1936. In 1932 all four western provinces were in effect bankrupt and the federal government established unemployment relief camps. Back to Line
109] the Slump: now called the Great Depression. Back to Line
118] Shade: ghost. Back to Line
184] "and so forth and so on" (a French expression: see the OED, which lists examples 1904-29). Back to Line
214] Clutch: the gear-changing pedal in a car. Back to Line
220] Potomac: river running through Washington, D.C. The event to which Leacock alludes has not been found. Back to Line
221] on the Dole: lining up for rations in public, on welfare. Back to Line
235] Neolithic: Stone-Age. Back to Line
251] Rutherford: Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), British physicist.
Soddy: Frederick Soddy (1877-1956), British chemist. Back to Line
268] flying reptiles that were extinct long before man was around to hunt them. Back to Line
290] chuck a Brace: throw away your crutch (?). Back to Line
293] Year of Waterloo: 1815. Back to Line
295] Hessian Boot: German boot extending almost to the knee. Back to Line
299] Euthalameon: from Latin "euthalos," `laurel'? Back to Line
328] Paresis: an incomplete paralysis of the insane. Back to Line
333] Pop-stop: stop to fathering (being a "pop")? or poppycock (silliness)? Back to Line
334] ergo: therefore.
drop-stop: an end to the Slump? Back to Line
Publication Start Year
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.