The Workhouse Orphan

Familiar to us all from a reading of Dickens : The workhouse orphan Oliver, 'desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery' asks for a bit more gruel, and is institutionally victimised for his temerity: confined for a week in a dark, cold and solitary room, caned by the Beadle, flogged before an audience of paupers, and preached against at prayer-time.  (Chapter 3 – Oliver Twist)

Here is Clare on a subject very dear to his heart, writing 20 years before Dickens’ famous book.

The Workhouse Orphan

With Mary Lee the parish was my lot
& its cold bounty all the friends I got
Dragd from our childhoods pleasures & its plays
We pined in workhouse sorrows many days
Were many wants recievd their scan supply
Were pity never came to check the sigh
Save what laws force from tyrant overseers
Whose bitter gifts was purchased with our tears
There ragd & starvd & workd beyond our powers
We toild those hours you spend in gathering flowers
Nor mothers smiles had we our toils to cheer
But tyrants frowns & threatnings ever near
Who beat enfeebled weakness many times
& scoft misfortunes agonys as crimes
While prides vain childern of a luckier race
Were taught to shun our presence as disgrace
Thus workhouse misery did we both abide
Till our own strength its poverty supplyd
& service freed us –

I hope I’m very wrong, but this is where we certainly seem to be heading as a nation two hundred years later: “Who beat enfeebled weakness many times / & scoft misfortunes agonys as crimes / While prides vain children of a luckier race / Were taught to shun our presence as disgrace”. 

This was published in David Powell’s  ‘Notes’ to Eric Robinson’s “The Parish’ published in 1985, and in EP I 660 (lines 57-75) & Tibbles I 492.

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