The Song of the Shirt

Original Text: 
Punch (London, 1843). AP 101 P8 Robarts Library
2    With eyelids heavy and red,
3A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
4    Plying her needle and thread--
5       Stitch! stitch! stitch!
6In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
7And still with the voice of dolorous pitch
8She sang the "Song of the Shirt!"
9  "Work! Work! Work!
10While the cock is crowing aloof!
11    And work--work--work,
12Till the stars shine through the roof!
13It's O! to be a slave
14    Along with the barbarous Turk,
15Where woman has never a soul to save
16If this is Christian work!
17  "Work--work--work
18Till the brain begins to swim,
19    Work--work--work
20Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
21Seam, and gusset, and band,
22    Band, and gusset, and seam,
23Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
24    And sew them on in a dream!
25  "O, Men with Sisters dear!
26    O, Men! with Mothers and Wives!
27It is not linen you're wearing out,
28    But human creatures' lives!
29       Stitch--stitch--stitch,
30In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
31Sewing at once, with a double thread,
32A Shroud as well as a Shirt.
33  "But why do I talk of Death!
34    That Phantom of grisly bone,
35I hardly fear his terrible shape,
36    It seems so like my own--
37    It seems so like my own,
38    Because of the fasts I keep;
39O God! that bread should be so dear,
40    And flesh and blood so cheap!
41  "Work--work--work!
42    My labour never flags;
43And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
44    A crust of bread--and rags.
45That shatter'd roof,--and this naked floor--
46    A table--a broken chair--
47And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
48    For sometimes falling there!
49  "Work--work--work!
50From weary chime to chime,
51    Work--work--work--
52As prisoners work for crime!
53    Band, and gusset, and seam,
54    Seam, and gusset, and band,
55Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumb'd,
56    As well as the weary hand.
57  "Work--work--work,
58In the dull December light,
59    And work--work--work,
60When the weather is warm and bright--
61While underneath the eaves
62    The brooding swallows cling,
63As if to show me their sunny backs
64    And twit me with the spring.
65  "O, but to breathe the breath
66Of the cowslip and primrose sweet!--
67    With the sky above my head,
68And the grass beneath my feet;
69For only one short hour
70    To feel as I used to feel,
71Before I knew the woes of want
72    And the walk that costs a meal!
73  "O, but for one short hour!
74      A respite however brief!
75No blessed leisure for Love or Hope,
76    But only time for Grief!
77A little weeping would ease my heart,
78    But in their briny bed
79My tears must stop, for every drop
80    Hinders needle and thread!
81  "Seam, and gusset, and band,
82Band, and gusset, and seam,
83       Work, work, work,
84Like the Engine that works by Steam!
85A mere machine of iron and wood
86    That toils for Mammon's sake--
87Without a brain to ponder and craze
88    Or a heart to feel--and break!"
89      --With fingers weary and worn,
90    With eyelids heavy and red,
91A Woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
92    Plying her needle and thread--
93       Stitch! stitch! stitch!
94    In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
95And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,--
96Would that its tone could reach the Rich!--
97She sang this "Song of the Shirt!"


1] "Inspired by an incident which had newly drawn public attention to the condition of some workers in London. A woman with a starving infant at the breast `was charged at the Lambeth Police-court with pawning her master's goods, for which she had to give two pounds security. Her husband had died by an accident, and left her with two children to support, and she obtained by her needle for the maintenance of herself and family what her master called the good living of seven shillings a week.'" (Jerrold). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
RPO poem Editors: 
J. D. Robins
RPO Edition: 
2RP.2.331; RPO 1996-2000.