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London Voices: Eliza Cook
Posted on Jan 10, 2003 - 12:16 PM by Polina Coffey

The daughter of a Southwark tradesman, Eliza Cook is one of the forgotten voices of Victorian London. She taught herself to read and write and by the age of 20 was regularly contributing poetry to two of the popular periodicals and had published her first collection. The latter made her name a household word in both England and America. Her poetry was extremely popular with the lower and middle classes and she achieved official recognition in 1863 when she was granted a civil list pension which allowed her to live comfortably until her death in 1889. Here is a small selection from her huge output.

HE London poet, Eliza Cook was born in Southwark on December 24th 1818. Her father was a local tradesman but he did not, or could not, send his daughter to school. Eliza taught herself to read and write and, whilst still a girl, began to write poetry for the Weekly Despatch and New Monthly periodicals. In 1838 she published her first collection, Melaia and other Poems. Between 1849 and 1854 she puiblished a family paper which she called Eliza Cook's Journal. In 1860 came her Jottings from my Journal to be followed by New Echoes in 1864.

Her most popular poem was The Old Arm-Chair which was included in her 1838 collection. It made her name a household word on both sides of the Atlantic for an entire generation. There is an air of simple domestic sentimentality about her work which was extremely popular with the lower and middle classes of Victorian London. The Street Patterers frequently found it advantageous to attribute their own doggerel to the "pen of Miss Eliza Cook". Her achievements were officially recognised in 1863 when she was granted a civil list pension of 100 a year. She died on September 23rd 1889 at Wimbledon. Here is a small selection of her poems, including that which made her famous.


THREE summers have gone since the first time we met, love,
And still 'tis in vain that I ask thee to wed;
I hear no reply but a gentle "Not yet, love,"
With a smile of your lip, and a shake of your head.
Ah ! how oft have I whispered, how oft have I sued thee,
And breathed my soul's question of " When shall it be?"
You know, dear, how long and how truly I've wooed thee,
So don't tell the world that you're waiting for me.

I have fashioned a home, where the fairies might dwell, love,
I've planted the myrtle, the rose, and the vine;
But the cottage to me is a mere hermit's cell, love,
And the bloom will be dull till the flowers are thine.
I've a ring of bright gold, which I gaze on when lonely,
And sigh with Hope's eloquence, " When will it be?"
There needs but thy " Yes," love--one little word only,
So don't tell the world that you're waiting for me.


'Tis well to wake the theme of Love
When chords of wild ecstatic fire
Fling from the harp, and amply prove
The soul as joyous as the lyre.

Such theme is blissful when the heart
Warms with the precious name we pour;
When our deep pulses glow and start
Before the idol we adore.

Sing ye, whose doting eyes behold
Whose ears can drink the dear one's tone;
Whose hands may press, whose arms may fold
The prized, the beautiful, thine own!

But should the ardent hopes of youth
Have cherished dreams that darkly fled;
Should passion, purity, and truth,
Live on, despairing o'er the dead:

Should we have heard some sweet voice hushed,
Breathing our name in latest vow;
Should our fast heavy tears have gushed
Above a cold, yet worshipped brow:

Oh! say, then, can the minstrel choose
The theme that gods and mortals praise?
No, no; the spirit will refuse,
And sadly shun such raptured lays.

For who can bear to touch the string
That yields but anguish in its strain;
Whose lightest notes have power to wring
The keenest pangs from breast and brain?

'Sing ye of Love in words that burn?'
Is what full many a lip will ask;
But love the dead, and ye will learn
Such bidding is no gentle task.

Oh! pause in mercy, ere ye blame
The one who lends not Love his lyre;
That which ye deem ethereal flame
May be to him a torture pyre.


I leave thee for awhile, my love, I leave thee with a sigh;
The fountain spring within my soul is playing in mine eye;
I do not blush to own the tear,-let, let it touch my cheek,
And what my lip has failed to tell, that drop perchance may speak.
Mavourneen! when again I seek my green isle in the West,
Oh, promise thou wilt share my lot, and set this heart at rest.

I leave thee for awhile, my love; but every hour will be
Uncheered and lonely till the one that brings me back to thee.
I go to make my riches more; but where is man to find
A vein of gold so rich and pure as that I leave behind?
Mavourneen! though my home might be the fairest earth possessed,
Till thou wouldst share and make it warm, this heart would know no rest.

I leave thee for awhile, my love; my cheek is cold and white,
But ah, I see a promise stand within thy glance of light;
When next I seek old, Erin's shore, thy step will bless it too,
And then the grass will seem more green, the sky will have more blue.
Mavourneen! first and dearest loved, there's sunshine in my breast,
For thou wilt share my future lot, and set this heart at rest.


Work, work, my boy, be not afraid;
Look labor boldly in the face;
Take up the hammer or the spade,
And blush not for your humble place.

There's glory in the shuttle's song;
There's triumph in the anvil's stroke;
There's merit in the brave and strong
Who dig the mine or fell the oak.

The wind disturbs the sleeping lake,
And bids it ripple pure and fresh;
It moves the green boughs till they make
Grand music in their leafy mesh.

And so the active breath of life
Should stir our dull and sluggard wills;
For are we not created rife
With health, that stagnant torpor kills?

I doubt if he who lolls his head
Where idleness and plenty meet,
Enjoys his pillow or his bread
As those who earn the meals they eat.

And man is never half so blest
As when the busy day is spent
So as to make his evening rest
A holiday of glad content.


LOVE it, I love it; and who shall dare
To chide me for loving that old Arm-chair?
I've treasured it long as a sainted prize;
I've bedewed it with tears, and embalmed it with sighs.
'Tis bound by a thousand bands to my heart;
Not a tie will break, not a link will start.
Would ye learn the spell? -- a mother sat there;
And a sacred thing is that old Arm-chair.

In Childhood's hour I lingered near
The hallowed seat with listening ear;
And gentle words that mother would give;
To fit me to die, and teach me to live.
She told me shame would never betide,
With truth for my creed and God for my guide;
She taught me to lisp my earliest prayer;
As I knelt beside that old Arm-chair.

I sat and watched her many a day,
When her eye grew dim, and her locks were grey:
And I almost worshipped her when she smiled,
And turned from her Bible, to bless her child.
Years rolled on; but the last one sped--
My idol was shattered; my earth-star fled:
I learnt how much the heart can bear,
When I saw her die in that old Arm-chair.

'Tis past, 'tis past, but I gaze on it now
With quivering breath and throbbing brow:
'Twas there she nursed me; 'twas there she died:
And Memory flows with lava tide.
Say it is folly, and deem me weak,
While the scalding drops start down my cheek;
But I love it, I love it; and cannot tear
My soul from a mother's old Arm-chair.


'Tis midnight! and pale Melancholy stands
Beside me, wearing a funereal wreath
Of yew and cypress; the faint dirge of death
Moans in her breathing, while her withered hands
Fling corse-bedecking rosemary around.
She offers nightshade, spreads a winding-sheet,
Points to the clinging clay upon her feet,
And whispers tidings of the charnel ground.
Oh! pray thee, Melancholy, do not bring
These bitter emblems with thee; I can bear
With all but these,--'tis these, oh God! that wring
And plunge my heart in maddening despair.
Hence, for awhile, pale Melancholy, go!
And let sweet slumber lull my weeping woe.


THE worm, the rich worm, has a noble domain
In the field that is stored with its millions of slain;
The charnel-grounds widen, to me they belong,
With the vaults of the sepulchre, sculptured and strong.
The tower of ages in fragments is laid,
Moss grows on the stones, and I lurk in its shade;
And the hand of the giant and heart of the brave
Must turn weak and submit to the worm and the grave.

Daughters of earth, if I happen to meet
Your bloom-plucking fingers and sod-treading feet--
Oh ! turn not away with the shriek of disgust
From the thing you must mate with in darkness and dust.
Your eyes may be flashing in pleasure and pride,
'Neath the crown of a Queen or the wreath of a bride;
Your lips may be fresh and your cheeks may be fair--
Let a few years pass over, and I shall be there.

Cities of splendour, where palace and gate,
Where the marble of strength and the purple of state;
Where the mart and arena, the olive and vine,
Once flourished in glory; oh ! are ye not mine?
Go look for famed Carthage, and I shall be found
In the desolate ruin and weed-covered mound;
And the slime of my trailing discovers my home,
'Mid the pillars of Tyre and the temples of Rome.

I am sacredly sheltered and daintily fed
Where the velvet bedecks, and the white lawn is spread;
I may feast undisturbed, I may dwell and carouse
On the sweetest of lips and the smoothest of brows.
The voice of the sexton, the chink of the spade,
Sound merrily under the willow's dank shade.
They are carnival notes, and I travel with glee
To learn what the churchyard has given to me.

Oh ! the worm, the rich worm, has a noble domain,
For where monarchs are voiceless I revel and reign;
I delve at my ease and regale where I may;
None dispute with the worm in his will or his way.
The high and the bright for my feasting must fall--
Youth, Beauty, and Manhood, I prey on ye all:
The Prince and the peasant, the despot and slave;
All, all must bow down to the worm and the grave.


We have faith in old proverbs full surely,
For Wisdom has traced what they tell,
And Truth may be drawn up as purely
From them, as it may from "a well."
Let us question the thinkers and doers,
And hear what they honestly say;
And you'll find they believe, like bold wooers,
In "Where there's a will there's a way."

The hills have been high for man's mounting,
The woods have been dense for his axe,
The stars have been thick for his counting,
The sands have been wide for his tracks,
The sea has been deep for his diving,
The poles have been broad for his sway,
But bravely he's proved in his sriving,
That "Where there's a will there's a way."

Have ye vices that ask a destroyer?
Or passions that need your control?
Let Reason become your employer,
And your body be ruled by your soul.
Fight on, though ye bleed in the trial,
Resist with all strength that ye may;
Ye may conquer Sin's host by denial;
For "Where there's a will there's a way."

Have ye Poverty's pinching to cope with?
Does Suffering weigh down your might?
Only call up a spirit to hope with,
And dawn may come out of the night.
Oh! much may be done by defying
The ghosts of Despair and Dismay;
And much may be gained by relying
On "Where there's a will there's a way."

Should ye see, afar off, that worth winning,
Set out on the journey with trust;
And ne'er heed if your path at beginning
Should be among brambles and dust.
Though it is but by footsteps ye do it,
And hardships may hinder and stay;
Walk with faith, and be sure you'll get through it;
For "Where there's a will there's a way."

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