..
.
The Song of the Shirt
A Poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
.
Type of Work
Source
Theme
Summary
Text of the Poem
Tone
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Verse Format
Alliteration
Anaphora
Metaphor
Paradox
Conclusion: a Plea
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Hood
.
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2011
.
Type of Work and Year Written

.......Thomas Hood's "The Song of the Shirt" is a protest poem centering on the inhumane working conditions and meager pay of London's lower-class workers. Punch magazine published it in its 1843 Christmas issue. Since then, numerous collections and anthologies have published the poem.

Source

.......Hood based his poem on a real incident involving a London widow who sewed men's garments in her home from materials provided by her employer. She worked long hours but received a meager wage of seven shillings a week. On one occasion, she pawned the employer's sewing materials so she could buy food for her starving children. A London police court charged her with a crime. 

Theme and Summary

.......The theme of the poem is the unjust treatment of laborers by niggardly employers. Hood develops this theme by focusing on an overworked woman who sews men's shirts and pants. She is the poem's speaker.
.......The long hours and tedium of her job wear her down physically, and the poor pay forces her to wear rags, live in squalor, and go hungry. While working her threaded needle up and down, she sings a "song of the shirt" as a complaint about her plight. 
.......In her song, she says she must work from sunup ("while the cock is crowing," line 10) until nightfall ("till the stars shine through the roof," line 12). She is no more than a slave. She works so hard, she says, that she falls asleep over her work but continues it in a dream. 
.......The speaker then appeals to men, telling them that wearing out the shirts and trousers she makes also wears out the lives of the women who sew them. In other words, while sewing shirts and pants, these women are also sewing their own shrouds. But, the speaker says, she little fears death; for she herself—gaunt, deprived of food—is the very figure of death.
.......And what does she get for all her work? Only a crust of bread, ragged clothing, and a ramshackle house with shabby furnishings.
.......Throughout the year, she sits at her sewing—like a prisoner in a workhouse—and yearns in the spring to go outside for a single hour to breathe the fragrant air. She has no time for love or hope, but only time for grief. So on and on she sews, and on and on she sings the song of the shirt.

Text of the Poem
 

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,............................20 
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,...................................30
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!..............................40

"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—..................60
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,..........................................70
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 blessed 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!".....................................80

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!"
 

Notes

barbarous Turk: The speaker considers the Turks barbarous because they are not Christians.
gusset: Cloth sewn into a garment or glove to make it stronger or wider.
Shroud: Burial cloth; sheet that wraps a corpse. 
cowslip and primrose: Flowers.
ring: Ring-shaped gathering place in London's Hyde Park or Regency Park. People would meet there to socialize or exchange news.
.

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is despairing—or, as line 87 suggests, dolorous. 

End Rhyme

.......Alternating lines of end rhyme occur in all the stanzas. But all the stanzas except the second contain two to four unrhyming lines. Here are examples.

Stanza 1

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."

Stanza 8

"Work — work — work,
In the dull December light,
And work — work — work,
When the weather is warm and bright — 60
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

Stanza 10

"Oh! but for one short hour!
A respite however brief!
No blessed 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!" 80

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains rhymes within the lines of verse. Here are examples.

And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank (line 47)
While underneath the eaves (line 61)
And the grass beneath my feet (line 68)
A little weeping would ease my heart (line 77)
Would that its tone could reach the Rich! (line 88)
Verse Format

.......The poem consists mainly of iambs and anapests in lines of varying lengths. Following are the metric formats of the first three lines.

    .....1..................2..................... 3
    ....iamb..................iamb......................anapest
    With FING..|..ers WEAR..|..y and WORN.........................................(trimeter)
     

    ......1...............2................. 3
    .....iamb...............iamb................anapest
    With EYE..|..lids HEA..|..vy and RED.................................................(trimeter)
     

    ......1...............2............. 3.................. 4
    .....iamb...............iamb...........anapest...............anapest
    A WOM..|..an SAT..|..in un WOM..|..an ly RAGS...............................(tetrameter)
     

Alliteration

.......Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound. It occurs frequently in the poem to enhance its appeal to the ear. 

With fingers weary and worn (line 1)
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags (line 3)
She sang the "Song of the Shirt." (line 8)
While the cock is crowing aloof! (line 10)
"Oh! but to breathe the breath (line 65)
In the dull December light
Anaphora

.......Anaphora is the repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of a phrase, clause, or sentence. Anaphora occurs throughout "November" with the repetition of no at the beginning of each line, as well as within some lines. 

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red (lines 1-2)

No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day— (line 3)

No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees (line 22)

"Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives! (lines 24-24)

Metaphor

.......A metaphor is a comparison between unlike things without the use of as, like, or than. Here are examples.

"But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone (lines 33-34)
Comparison of death to a phantom

"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 (lines 41-47)
Comparison of a wages to a bed, bread, roof,  etc.

Paradox

.......A paradox is a contradictory statement that contains truth.

"But why do I talk of Death?
That Phantom of grisly bone (lines 33-34)
A phantom is an apparition or a vision. Thus, it has no bones. However, in the form of a corpse, death contains bones.
Conclusion: A Plea

.......In the last stanza, the speaker expresses a plea for help from the wealthy citizens of London—some of whom, ironically, are the very ones who oppress her. This plea appears in line 88.

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,— 
Would that its tone could reach the Rich!— 
She sang this "Song of the Shirt!" (lines 87-89)
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a short protest poem on a subject of your choice. 
  • Write an essay centering on the wages and working conditions of London laborers in the mid-nineteenth century. 
  • List additional examples of alliteration besides those mentioned above
  • What is the meaning of the following words in the poem: plying, dolorous, brooding, twit, and grisly.
....

.