Close your eyes and transport yourself back to the 18th century. Now open your eyes and look at your apparel. Nice, right? Well, that’s blood, sweat, and tears you’re wearing. Welcome to the 18th century where the lower class is forced into hard labor to make a meager living. Thomas Hood, a poet of the Romantic and Victorian movement, wrote “The Song of the Shirt” to raise awareness of this social injustice behind the labor of impoverished factory workers. Consisting of 11 stanzas, Hood’s poem generally follows a ABCBDEDE rhyme scheme and employs elements of meter such as repetition, assonance, and consonance convey the emotional and physical toil of the seamstress who is one of two narrators.
As briefly mentioned, “The Song of the Shirt” surprisingly has two voices: The speaker and the seamstress. Though we really only read from the speaker’s voice in the first and last stanza, it’s important to notice how the first stanza sets a meter and introduction to the seamstress while the last stanza ends the poem with a full circle back to the beginning with a minor change. This change being the line: “ Would that its tone could reach the Rich!—” (Line 88). Though this line is a small detail and still end rhymes with the previous line, “And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,—” (Line 87), is it possible Hood is doing something quite bold here in straying from this otherwise same repetition of the first stanza?? In a socio-economic lens, the upper class are either ignorant or bystanders to the horrible experience in the workplace, due to their privelege. I believe Hood is, what modern slang would say, “straight up” with his message: He wants “the Rich” to finally come face with what’s going on behind the production of the very clothes they wear.
Darling readers, there’s something else I wanted to draw your attention to. This being the meter that I brought up before. Besides creating a musical rhythm which emanates the seamstress’s song, is it possible that the rhyme scheme has another meaning? For instance, take a look at these paralleled lines in separate stanzas: “ ‘Work! work! Work! While the cock is crowing aloof! And work—work—work, Till the stars shine through the roof!” (Lines 9-12) and “ ‘Work—work—work Till the brain begins to swim; Work—work—work Till the eyes are heavy and dim!” (Lines 17-20). Just looking at the repetition of “work, work, work”, I wonder if it’s meant to establish a sense of tedious labor in a never-ending cycle. Furthermore, look at how the stressed and unstressed rhythm of lines 10 and 12 is the same as that of lines 18 and 20. The pattern in rhythm is not only pleasant to read (I confess that I’m guilty of reading these lines out loud multiple times), but it also delivers the physical beat of the seamstress’s labor.
I’d like to leave a few parting thoughts with you all, dear readers. Hood’s poem is deceivingly simple and rhythmically pleasing to read, reminding me of a nursery rhyme or children’s story. Did Hood do this on purpose to appeal to the upper class, his intended audience? That in their privilege of wealth and education, the ignorant and the bystanders find that an easy yet emotional read is a fascination to them and Hood is playing with that knowledge? Personally, it seems Hood is further snubbing the upper class by doing so and I applaud him. What a king.