Rhyme and Reform

Victorian Working-Class Poets Elizabeth Barrett Brownings "The Cry of the Children"

I: “The Wail O’ The Factory Lass”

This poem is written in Scots, as was very common in poems which represented the voices of Scottish workers, who would have spoken in Scots themselves. It was published in the poetry column of the very popular People’s Journal, a newspaper based in Dundee on the east coast of Scotland, on 25 January 1862. Focusing in its title, like EBB, on a lament (a “cry” or “wail”), it is spoken in the voice of a “factory girl.” Given its place of publication, readers would most likely have pictured a worker in Dundee’s many mills. Though actual factory girls – notably poet Ellen Johnston – certainly did publish in the People’s Journal, it is impossible to know whether this poem represents the “real” lived experience of its author or not. What it does show is the continued publication of poems focusing on the noise, pollution and cruelty of the factory. The poem intervenes in Victorian debates over the morality of factory girls and the propriety of women working in factories, since it shows an innocent girl forced into factory labor through no fault of her own, and suggests that she is consequently exposed to “temptation and sin.”

This link will take you to the Dictionary of the Scots Language if some of the words in the following poem are unfamiliar.

Dark, dark was the day when my daddy laid doon
His auld honour’d head neath the Kirk-yard’s green grass;
An’ I, poor an’ friendless, was forced to the toon,
To lead the hard life o’ a factory lass.

O dowie’s my heart wi’ this wearifu’ tussle,
I’m deaved an’ heart-tired o’ the rough, ceaseless din,
For virtue and truth baith grow sick in the bustle
An’ glare o’ sae mony temptations an’ sin.

Frae my dust-darken’d windows I anxiously gaze,
Ae gladdenin’ blink o’ the bricht sun to see;
But dimly he keeks thro’ the dull smoky haze,
He hasna’ the glory he ance had to me.


Weel, well, we maun needs in the warld’s great stir
Just bear oor hard burden, tho’ aften ‘tis sair,
An’ hopefu’ look up, whaur the wheels’ dinnin’ birr,
An’ the mill master’s snarlin’ will fash us nae mair.

The Wail O’ The Factory Lass, courtesy of Dundee Central Library, Wellgate, Dundee





erik_swanson • August 13, 2018

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