Against the Lash: an anti-flogging poem

On 16 August 1845, the Londonderry Sentinel published a poem about the dehumanising effect of flogging in the army. This is the only verse on flogging I have found in the Irish newspapers, and I cannot resist reproducing it in full below. It has many narrative elements to savour: a peasant lad sheds ‘noble tears’ on a ‘sullen autumn eve’ because his aged parents are sliding into decrepitude.
For those who don’t want to wallow in nineteenth-century sentimentality, here is a brief summary of the poem. A strapping young lad decides he cannot face the impending death and decay of his parents. He leaves them in the care of a neighbouring brother and departs the peaceful countryside to join the army. All goes well: he is cheerful and steady. But his brother dies, leaving his parents alone and destitute. They have nowhere to go but ‘The Workhouse! – the prison of the poor!’. This devastating news breaks the peasant’s heart and he drinks until he abandons his military duties. For this offence he is court-martialled and flogged. The last 2 verses address the real tragedy; the destruction of a man’s spirit by the lash’s ‘horrid work of blood’. The willing soldier, the open-countenanced, honest peasant, is gone forever, the cat o’ nine tails has ‘ only made a SLAVE’.
Coincidentally, this poem was published the same day that runaway-slave, orator and author Frederick Douglass set sail for Europe. As I wrote before, opposition to flogging was long-standing, but this poem shows clearly that American slavery influenced perceptions of individual rights and freedoms in Britain, and Ireland.
And for the connoisseurs of full-technicolor melodrama, here is the poem in full:
Against the Lash – “The Peasant Soldier” (Londonderry Sentinel, 16 August 1845.)

Want drove him from his home,
One sullen autumn eve;
He loved too deeply all within,
For any “taking leave.”
Want pinched him – but his heart,
Burned neither black nor bad;
He would not rob, nor poach, nor starve:
He was – an honest lad!

Some nineteen years had past,
Over an open brow
Which having shone through youth, at last
Burnt into manhood now!
His life began in smiles,
His youth kept on their track,
And now, with manhood’s touch of woe,
He wished their sunshine back.

He saw his father old,
And powerless and weak;
He saw tears in age furrows ploughed
Upon his mother’s cheek!
He felt a dread of home
Come shrouding round his heart,
He would not see the ruin come,
He knew he must depart.

It was a sullen eve,
The sunset left the corn
With such a cloud-frown so its ear
As ever lasts till morn.
He wept – the peasant lad –
Tears – holy tears – aloud.
And felt as if his heart threw off
The frowning of the cloud!

He walked to brother’s farm –
“Brother, you’ve money –say,
Wilt keep the old uns from all harm
If I should go away?”
“I will–“Enough! No more!”
The peasant brush’d his cheek,
Then turn’d him from a brother’s door –
His brother couldn’t speak!

On, on a few more miles–
(This heart-tree grows to fruit!)
The silent parting swells to noise! –
The peasant’s a recruit
The tears are dash’d away.
The smile again is seen:
His calm resolve has won the day–
The peasant serves his Queen.

Serves and serves well! A soldier’s growth,
springs out of every limb:
The Serjeant’s foresight well may carve,
A soldier out of him.
Cheerful at bed and board,
Steady at dress and drill
No care except for HOME to hoard
Against its chance of ill!

His brother fails, the dear
Old parents of his love
Have lost their last and little cheer,
To worse than jail they move
The Workhouse! – prison of the poor! –
Oh! how his nature slunk
Away from its own anguish, when
Grief made that Peasant drunk!

Drunk with a phrenzied rage,
That would not brook its care –
Drunk with a mad defiance such
As borders on despair!
Drunk till all hope died out,
All duty seem’d forgot–
Drunk till he went with pinioned limbs
To meet the culprit’s lot.

He slept a sleep like death,
Till he and morning work
And with all that withereth
Life’s human heart! – he spoke
No word – but met “the Court,”
With heavy look of gloom,
And heard his sentence – like a soul
Departing to it’s doom!

And now the lash has done
It’s horrid work of blood!
A man’s eye dim – a man’s heart crush’d,
Where once the peasant stood!
Bring surgeon’s care and skill!
Bring bitter salt and brine!
You cannot call his manhood back,
Nor bid his spirit shine!

No more unto the drill
He hies as to a feast,
No more the ready heart and will!
He hates you now at least
He knows himself is lost
But in the young and brave,
You’ve lost a soldier and a man,
And only made a SLAVE.

This entry was posted in Britain, Co Derry, Court Martial, Flogging, History, Ireland, Military, Poetry, Punishment, Slavery. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.