Poor People's Christmas Poem by Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel

Poor People's Christmas

HARK! the Christmas bells ring round!
Many light hearts with joy abound!
They come and go upon the wind,
'Peace and goodwill to all mankind!'

Where bleared faces of mean houses
Lean as if to touch each other,
Where idle, ugly vice carouses,
And the brown fogs choke and smother,
In a room confined, dun, damp,
Sits a woman scantly clad,
Sewing by a feeble lamp
Some lovely raiment deftly made,
Rich apparel to be worn
In splendid halls by laughing wealth,
Whose pale sister here forlorn
Leaves in all her youth and health -
Ah! I wonder, can it bless,
Such living lining to a dress? . . .
Take the lovely raiment off!
Hell hath given it with a scoff!
For she must toil ere daydawn dim,
Long after winter suns have set,
And even so, the Hunger grim
Slow feeds on lives she fights for yet -
Three tattered little ones who play
Faint-hearted on the mouldy floor:
She fought for other two; but they
Have gone where want can hurt no more.

Vile fumes, with subtle poison-breath,
That fouls the throat, killed one young child:
Roofs bulge in this abode of death,
Walls totter and tumble, damp-defiled;
While on the too scant space intrude
Rats, hustling the young human brood.
A mean bed, table, broken chair,
Furnish the degraded room;
A print, some delf, one flower fair,
Are fain to mitigate the gloom.
Bitter winter wind shrilled through
Rotten door and window when it blew.
She, working early, working late,
Breathes no impatient word nor wail:
Her heavy task may ne'er abate,
Though eyesight fade and strength may fail.
Her husband, long through accident
Disabled, might no more endure
To watch her, burden-bowed and bent,
the wife, whom these dark dens immure,
Whom no longing love may cure,
Nor help, though she be bruised and rent.
Confused, heartbroken, he will hide
His eyes for ever under tide
Of deeply, darkly rolling Thames,
That quenches hottest human flames.

Merry Christmas bells ring round!
Many light hearts with joy abound;
They come and go upon the wind,
'Peace and goodwill to all mankind!'

Merry Christmas chimes rang round,
When he sought the river's bank,
Rang over him the while he drowned,
And in the depths a third time sank,
While laughing youth's swift-flying feet
To music danced in yonder street,
And in gay halls glad masquers meet.

Now the flickering lamplights float
Idly over corpse and boat;
From tower and temple London frowns
On all this ruin of her sons;
On her huge dome the cross of gold
Gleams in winter starlight cold;
Nor storied old-world obelisk,
Nor the illumined horal disk
High orbed on stately Westminster,
Where the Parliaments confer,
Take any heed of the black spot
That doth the silver moonlight blot,
A human shape unhearing hours,
Pealed now from modern, ancient towers,
That dark on turbid water ridges
Rocks in reflected flame from bridges
Where steam-lit trains, with living freight,
Going to glad homes elate,
Near ships laden with merchandise,
Spice, or silk of gorgeous dyes,
Where men from far realms of sunrise
Wait, forgetting care and sorrow,
In hope to greet dear friends to-morrow,
While their paddle-wheel foams over
The swaying corse, a senseless rover.

He turned from life, but left some words
Dyed in the anguish of his soul;
Deep anguish the brief page records,
Before dull waters o'er him roll.

'Upon the bed, or broken chair,
I sit and brood in my despair.
At times my brain seems all confused -
To watch my Mary's failing eyes,
And youth consumed with too much toil,
While patient at her task she dies!
I, pinioned, helpless, may not foil
Slow deaths that round my dear ones coil!
Over a new dress sits she bowed? -
I thought it was her own white shroud;-
Our wee Willie, like a weed,
Thrown into a nameless grave -
I am but one more mouth to feed!
They starve here, and I cannot save. . . .
I am but one more mouth to feed! . . .
We could not even put a stone,
To show where Willie lies alone!
When I left home, my love would write
That, ere our Willie went to bed,
He, wishing father a good-night,
Kissed the written words, she said,
Ere softly slept the curly head.
Ah! and now the boy is gone!-
We could not even put a stone!

Bells peal
) ' . . . Well loved those chimes
In happier times. . . .
Once more we have our cheerful home,
Around the window roses blow;
I see my Mary fair as foam,
Blithely singing, come and go,
While rosed with health the children roam. . . .
Now we are ground 'twixt two millstones -
The man that wrings the murderous rent,
Yet shelters not the naked bones
Cooped in his plague-fraught tenement,-
And vampires who suck sleek content
From human anguish, tears, and groans,
Clutch the fruit of our life's toil,
And batten upon the unholy spoil,
Throwing a wage-scrap back for fuel,
Lest man-mills stop the labour cruel,
And cease with Death unequal duel.
Shall we, chained starvelings, go, buy law,
To save us from the robber's claw?
Law is a cumbrous thing to move;
It will not come and help for love!
Buy women to starve at 'market-price,'
Gallio-Law, with looks of ice,
Smiles placid; poor man, steal a crust,
To feed them, Jefferies, judge most just,
Thee, wrath-red, into gyves will thrust.
'Church and State will guard,' saith he,
'The sacred rights of property!'
England wrestles for the slave
Enthralled beyond the alien wave;
Why doth his mother of the free
Let her strong sons with cruel glee
Crush weak sisters at her knee?
Set thine own house in order - then
Go and preach to evil men!
In feudal dungeons underground
They buried their live victims bound,
And we in our vile vaults immure
These whose crime is to be poor,
Starve babes and women innocent,
Tortured, in black prisons pent.
Feudal lords would
the slave;
But Capital from his despair
Extorts more toil than flesh can bear,
Keeps him half-living in his grave,
That serf may earn, and master have,
Till kindlier Death arrive to save.

'True men devise large schemes to heal
This gangrene of the Commonweal,
This prime injustice of the world,
That drones, who waste the wealth, may steal
From makers, to the dunghill hurled. . . .
. . . What use to watch slow murder done
On wife, and babe, and little son -
When near me glides Oblivion?'
So, while the indifferent body rolls,
With other things that have no souls,
On the blind tide to random goals,
In lustred lordly palace hall
Radiant boys and maidens play;
On whose cold doorstep women fall
Starved, numbed, and naked, life gone grey;
Within, youth's agile feet to sound
Of music flying, bells ring round,
Come and go upon the wind,
'Peace and goodwill to all mankind!'

On massy bridge, on broad-built quay,
Tumultuous tides of hurrying wealth
Sweep the marred sons of misery,
(Who thrid by sufferance, by stealth,
Their faint way; near the parapet
Cower, dull aware of fume and fret,)
Sweep them to where they may forget!
For riverward wan eyes are bowed;
Beside whom roars the traffic loud,
And the many-nationed crowd.
See grimed and haggard him or her,
Amid the animated stir
Of throngs that leave a theatre;
Well-dressed men cab and carriage call,
Round white shoulders fold the shawl,
Praise or blame what box or stall
Observed of acted joy or grief,
Carelessly, with comment brief -
Civic, or military pomp,
Massed colour, banner, drum and trump,
Court dames in well-appointed carriages,
Fair-favoured, fashionable marriages
Wolf-lean Hunger's eye disparages!
Wherein, as in some magic glass,
Ye may foresee your triumph pass,
Learning's vaunted vast appliances
Shattered in terrible defiances,
Flinging to the wild winds all affiances!
Do ye not hear low thunders rumble,
Ere, lightning-struck, the fabric crumble?
Your marts are thronged, luxurious, bright,
Your magic moons confound the night,
Yet marbled warehouse, palace height,
Grey minster that hath borne the brunt
Of Time's long battle, all confront
Shame, grim Nakedness, and Want!
While close-shut doors of secret sin
Open upon hell-flames within!

Hearken! how grand organ-strains
Shake the emblazoned window-panes,
Where priest and gorgeous ritual blesseth
Whoso prayeth, or confesseth,
In holy twilight of hushed fanes!
Yet Christmas carols from the church
Mock those dim figures by the porch,
Huddled, famished in their rags
Drink-sodden these from alehouse lurch,
And those lie numbed upon the flags,
Till, passing, a policeman drags
To ward or workhouse, 'moves them on'
Somewhere, while they make low moan,
Pale spectres of dread Babylon!
But the flaunting harlot's ditty
Striketh even a deeper pity,
Cruel Want's degraded daughter,
On her way to the dark water,
Where horror-breathing, dense brown air
Grimly shrouds a dumb despair. . . .
. . . Is there a worse hell over there?

The holly and the mistletoe
Cheer our banquet, wine-cups flow,
Light laughter bubbles o'er the bowl,
And we forget no Christmas dole;
Yet our grief-burdened sisters die
Around us in slow agony,
While we are ringing in the morn
When man's Deliverer was born; . . .
. . . Ah! but our Brother too wore thorn!

Pale Mary toils; her hollow eyes
Are patient, mild, of heavenly blue;
Hourly repeats the sacrifice
That all the world to Calvary drew;
'Father, forgive their cruelties;
For they know not what they do.' . . .
. . . She murmurs, 'Now I feel Thee near!
My little ones I leave to Thee:
Do what thou wilt,- I trust, not fear. . . .
Thy Birthday bells ring merrily!
I am weary, and would rest,
Gentle Jesus, on Thy breast!
I shall see Willie,- yes, and Jim,
My heart's own husband; turbid, dim,
His mind was from our suffering so;
Therefore the Lord forgave, I know,
The unbelief that conquered him.
Ah! but I wonder much how long
He will endure their cruel wrong!'
A high-born sister who had left
Her vantage-ground to help the weak,
Supplying unto these bereft
From her full store whate'er they seek,
Came that night, a nurse, to tend
The dying woman; and she heard
Near the poor pallet, ere the end,
Low song as from some heavenly bird,
Although no human lips were stirred!
Christ came, in vision, to the dying,
Led by the hand their own lost child;
He saith: 'Love justifies relying
On him, daughter!' and she smiled!
Near the boy a Christmas tree
Laughed with lights full merrily!
'Love justifieth your relying,
And heareth ever bitter crying
Of those whom the hard world hath spurned:
My martyrs high estate have earned.'
A common workman seemed the Lord,
Standing by the poor bedside;
Yet she knew He was the Word,
That Jesus who was crucified,
And poured contempt on human pride.

'My servants fashion even now
Justice for the commonweal;
From toilers with the hand, the brow,
Idle men no more may steal;
My servants seek; I whisper how
They may find the remedy,
Save My little ones who cry:
For I am poor Myself, you know;
The poor are Mine, and I will heal!-
Already dawns millennium;
Soon My holy reign will come.
The man who loved you, whom you love,
Was of the faithful band I move.
Awhile I hid My face from him,
For awhile his ways were dim;
Baser, earthlier passion jars
With spheral music of the stars;
Yet in the end all makes, not mars!
I vindicate his human place
For every member of My race;
Let every manhood find free scope!
Now, beasts of burden, with no hope,
Men ripen not peculiar grain,
Given to each for general gain,
The social body to sustain.
Your Churches rarely worship Me,
Who am the incarnate Charity:
They call indeed upon My name;
But their proud Christ with crown and flame
Is another, not the same.
I made known a suffering God;
I consecrated Pain's abode.
Yet are they refuges for faith,
Though she be faded to a wraith,
Though driven from the altar, she
Oft in the world find sanctuary.
Strong men, refrain from legal greed!
Hear the fate-smitten when they plead!-
Justice, not almsgiving, they need.
God with conscience dowered you,
With more than in mere Nature grew;
All are brethren, all are one;
Wound other hearts, ye wound your own!
Strong men! poor weak worms! when
On whom, in trouble, will ye call?
When God hath changed your countenance,
And sends you feeble, fainting, hence?'

Then that gentle Face grew stern;
Sun-blazing eyes confront and burn
All the Temple-shadowed lies,
The marble-tomb proprieties
Of our later Pharisees,
Pious, proud, decorous, hard;
He blasted base content, and marred.
They shrinking wither up, nor linger-
Even as when, writing with His finger,
In the old Syrian garden, He
Shamed with a God-word quietly
Phylacteried fathers of the men,
Whose race hath the hard heart, as then.
'My birthday bells chime merrily!
Come, dear child, more close to me!
My best is evermore the prize
Of souls who nobly agonise!'

No feeble glimmer in the room,
Heaven's own effulgence doth illume
Her spirit; the poor sempstress died,
And Love immortal claimed a bride.

Hark! the Christmas bells ring round!
Many light hearts with joy abound;
They come and go upon the wind:
'Peace and goodwill to all mankind!'

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