The first shall be last

by redguthrie

To the Poor
By Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743–1825)

Child of distress, who meet’st the bitter scorn
Of fellow-men to happier prospects born,
Doomed Art and Nature’s various stores to see
Flow in full cups of joy—and not for thee;
Who seest the rich, to heaven and fate resigned,
Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind;
Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control,
Who feel’st oppression’s iron in thy soul,
Who dragg’st the load of faint and feeble years,
Whose bread is anguish, and whose water tears;
Bear, bear thy wrongs—fulfill thy destined hour,
Bend thy meek neck beneath the foot of Power;
But when thou feel’st the great deliverer nigh,
And thy freed spirit mounting seeks the sky,
Let no vain fears thy parting hour molest,
No whispered terrors shake thy quiet breast:
Think not their threats can work thy future woe,
Nor deem the Lord above like lords below;—
Safe in the bosom of that love repose
By whom the sun gives light, the ocean flows;
Prepare to meet a Father undismayed,
Nor fear the God whom priests and kings have made.

In 1795, Anna Lætitia Barbauld composed her poem “To the Poor” in response to “sermons in which the poor are addressed in a manner which evidently shows the design of making religion an engine of government” (Damrosch 31–2). In “To the Poor,” Barbauld masterfully uses the language of such sermons subvert their message and to call into question both established religion and government. By deftly developing a countercurrent alongside her condescending message of patience to the poor, Barbauld ultimately transforms “To the Poor” into a condemnation addressed to the rich and powerful.

Barbauld begins her dual message by addressing the poor as a “Child of distress” whom she calls “Doomed” and to “fate resign’d” (1, 3, 5). She treats poverty in these opening lines as an unchangeable condition, as a matter of destiny. She reinforces this point by juxtaposing the condition the rich and powerful whom she characterizes as “fellow men to happier prospects born” to whom “nature’s various stores…/ Flow in full cups of joy” (2, 3–4). If poverty is a matter of fate, then wealth and power are a birthright.

After establishing the naturalness of the existing social order, Barbauld advises a Job-like forbearance to the poor saying, “Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind” (6). In lines 7–10, she lists the afflictions the poor face before telling them again to accept fate in lines 11 and 12. In lines 13–21, Barbauld tell the poor not to worry when they die, for they will find repose “Safe in the bosom” of God (19). The poor may be fated to suffer, but if they quietly bear their suffering, Barbauld seems to say, they will be recompensed by the Lord.

Running parallel to this pablum is a social critique that continuously undercuts the comforting message Barbauld puts forward. Even as she establishes the roles of the rich and poor as predestined, Barbauld makes it clear that the rich, not fate, are the source of suffering for the child of distress. It is from those born to happier prospects that the poor receive “bitter scorn” (1). Even as the rich fill their cups with natures stores they share none of this earth-born bounty with the poor “Whose bread is anguish” (10).

Barbauld further indicts England’s existing social order when she enumerates the afflictions of the poor calling them “unjust” and “oppression” (7, 8). If the suffering of the poor were determined by God as a means of purifying their souls for heaven, their afflictions would be justified by the such a great reward. Being destined for heavenly freedom could not be oppressive. Barbauld furthers this point when she tells the poor a second time to bear what they are given. No longer to they face morally neutral afflictions, but they must bear “wrongs” (11).

As she moves toward the end of the poem, Barbauld’s subtle criticisms become more and more explicit. “Bend thy meek neck beneath the foot of power!” she tells the poor in line 12. This echos the Biblical “blessed are the meek” and the more dangerous “the meek shall inherit the earth,” but again Barbauld uses contrast to undercut the comfort of this allusion. The line establishes the image of the poor bending their necks in meek and humble prayer, yet they are not bending their necks to God, but because they are being trampled by earthly powers, which echoes the outrage of the prophet Amos in Amos 2:7 where he decries those “who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth.”

It is through this contrasting of the heavenly and the earthly Barbauld brings her poem to its forceful conclusion. As she tells the poor to expect heaven after death, she tells them not to “deem the Lord above, like Lords below” (18). In contrast to the suffering they faced at the hands of earthly lords, the poor can repose in the love of God, “By whom the sun gives light” and “the ocean flows” (19–20). God, who made the earth, has destined the poor not for suffering, but for eternal happiness. Barbauld’s description of the real God as loving and kind gives an added power to the closing line of her poem when she tells the poor not to “fear the God whom priests and kings have made” (22). It is not the creating God that demands that the poor suffer, but the created god, made in the image of corrupt priests and rulers. It is not God, but the bitter scorn of the rich and powerful that have fated the poor to suffer. It is not the Lord, but lords below that predestined the poor to be trod beneath the oppressive foot of power while the rich drink from full cups of joy.

This powerful last line not only invalidates the surface message of patience, but inverts the entire poem. Instead of addressing the poor, Barbauld’s true audience is the rich and powerful. Instead of delivering a message of hope, Barbauld issues an unmistakable condemnation, accusing priests and political rulers not only of abusing the poor, but of blaspheming by preaching a false god.

By choosing not to directly address the true subject of her poem until the last line, Barbauld reinforces her argument by modeling her poem’s form on the biblical line “But many who are are first will be last, and the last will be first” (New Revised Standard Version, Matt. 19:30). She places the poor, those who are last in status on earth, first in her poem and address them directly throughout. The priest and kings she condemns she never address directly, placing them behind the poor in importance. Her initial reference to priests and kings are vague in the beginning, “fellow men to happier prospects born,” and are not made explicit until the last line (2). She has made the last first and the first last.

Barbauld’s poetic condemnations gain further strength when taking into account certain historical considerations. Barbauld’s advice of restraint and forbearance to those “Whose bread is anguish” takes on a sharply ironic tone when one becomes aware of the bread and grain shortages in the year Barbauld wrote “To the Poor.” As grain prices increased that year, desperate towns and cities appealed to the Privy Council for emergency grain and a few seized grain destined for other places. When such measured did not suffice, the hungry took matters into their own hands, not by bearing their wrongs, but by rioting (Stern 169–72). There were at least 13 riots in Devonshire county alone, where one group of rioters declared “if they were to suffer they might as well be hung as starved, and they would run the risk of making their situation better, for worse cou’d not be” (Bohstedt and Williams 5, 22).

Likewise, Barbauld’s condemnation of church and state gains added force when it is remembered she is was a Dissenter, one who belonged to a church other than the national Church of England. In addition to resenting sermons that supported the suffering of the poor, Barbauld also had personal reasons to feel rage toward church and state. As a result of the Test and Corporation Acts, those who, like Barbauld, did not belong to the state church were barred from holding any public office and from attending Oxford or Cambridge, a condition Barbauld publicly decried (Kramnick 508, 514). By the time she wrote “To the Poor,” Barbauld was already well in the habit of condemning the unjust practices of church and state.

Through her powerful use of language, Barbauld sought to turn the unjust world on its head. In “To the Poor,” Barbauld is able to emulate the language of conservative priests to pointedly attack them, the government that supported them, and to condemn the rich who cause the poor to suffer in the name of a false god.