The Complaints of the Poor

Robert Southey

‘The Complaints of the Poor’ by Robert Southey takes place in a city, likely London, and describes the desperate measures poverty drives people to. 

Robert Southey

Nationality: England

Robert Southey was an English poet and part of the romantic school.

He served as poet laureate from 1813 until he died in 1843.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Poverty brings with it incredible suffering

Themes: Death, Dreams

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Grief, Hopelessness

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 18th Century

This chilling poem is an important reminder of how unequal society can be.

This poem was published in 1798 and deals with difficult topics like economic suffering, inequality, and class differences. ‘The Complaints of the Poor’ is written in a style that’s fairly easy to read and comprehend. There are a few moments where the syntax is slightly different than contemporary English, but it’s still easy to understand. 

The Complaints of the Poor
Robert Southey

And wherefore do the Poor complain?The rich man asked of me,—Come walk abroad with me, I saidAnd I will answer thee.

Twas evening and the frozen streetsWere cheerless to behold,And we were wrapt and coated well,And yet we were a-cold.

We met an old bare-headed man,His locks were few and white,I ask'd him what he did abroadIn that cold winter's night:

'Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,But at home no fire had he,And therefore, he had come abroadTo ask for charity.

We met a young bare-footed child,And she begg'd loud and bold,I ask'd her what she did abroadWhen the wind it blew so cold;

She said her father was at homeAnd he lay sick a-bed,And therefore was it she was sentAbroad to beg for bread.

We saw a woman sitting downUpon a stone to rest,She had a baby at her backAnd another at her breast;

I ask'd her why she loiter'd thereWhen the wind it was so chill;She turn'd her head and bade the childThat scream'd behind be still.

She told us that her husband servedA soldier, far away,And therefore to her parish sheWas begging back her way.

We met a girl; her dress was looseAnd sunken was her eye,Who with the wanton's hollow voiceAddress'd the passers by;

I ask'd her what there was in guiltThat could her heart allureTo shame, disease, and late remorse?She answer'd, she was poor.

I turn'd me to the rich man thenFor silently stood he,You ask'd me why the Poor complain,And these have answer'd thee
The Complaints of the Poor by Robert Southey 


Summary 

‘The Complaints of the Poor’ by Robert Southey is a poem about the suffering of the poor. 

In the first lines of ‘The Complaints of the Poor,’ the speaker describes talking to a rich man who doesn’t understand what the poor have to complain about. The speaker takes the man on a walking journey through the city, during which they meet several different people who are out at night hoping to make some money to afford food, medical care, shelter, and more.

These people are suffering in a way that the rich man had no prior comprehension of. He fully understands what it is the poor have to “complain about” at the end of the poem.

Themes 

The main theme of this poem is poverty. Specifically, the poet was interested in describing the ways that the poor suffer and what it is they have to “complain” about. The poem describes a rich man having his first real experience with the horrors of extreme poverty within city limits. The people the two main characters meet lack proper clothing, are penniless, and have had to resort to begging and prostitution in order to survive.

Structure and Form 

‘The Complaints of the Poor’ by Robert Southey is a twelve-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB; changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There are two different meters used in this line, iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. They are used alternatively in the even and odd-numbered lines. The poet’s use of these two meters, along with the ABCB, makes this poem written in ballad form. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. They include: 

  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And” starts four lines in stanzas one and two. 
  • Juxtaposition: the intentional contrasts of two unlike things. For example, the narrator and his rich companion are well-clothed, while the poor are “bare-headed.” 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For instance, “beg” and “bread” in stanza six. 


Stanzas One and Two

And wherefore do the Poor complain?

The rich man asked of me,—

Come walk abroad with me, I said

And I will answer thee.

Twas evening and the frozen streets

Were cheerless to behold,

And we were wrapt and coated well,

And yet we were a-cold.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by relaying a conversation they had with a rich man. This person asks the narrator why the “poor complain.” What is it, the rich man wonders, that they’re so upset about. He has no concept of what it means to be truly poor in the city. The rest of the poem, besides the final stanza, is the answer to his question. 

The narrator invites him to walk along the streets of the city and see if they can find an answer to his question. The narrator answers him confidently. He knows well what they are going to see when they “walk abroad,” and he knows, or hopes, that it’ll help the rich man get a better understanding of how people suffer. 

Stanzas Three and Four 

We met an old bare-headed man,

His locks were few and white,

I ask’d him what he did abroad

In that cold winter’s night:

‘Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,

But at home no fire had he,

And therefore, he had come abroad

To ask for charity.

The first person they come upon when they venture out into the streets at night is a “bare-headed man” who is contrasted with the narrator and his rich companion. The two are well-clothed but still cold. This provides the rich man with some perspective on what it would be like to be outside all night without proper clothes on. 

The man is out looking for “charity,” he answers. There is “no fire” at home (so it’s just as cold). The man is clearly desperate to be out in the cold winter weather, indicating just how desperate he is. 

Stanzas Five and Six 

We met a young bare-footed child,

And she begg’d loud and bold,

I ask’d her what she did abroad

When the wind it blew so cold;

She said her father was at home

And he lay sick a-bed,

And therefore was it she was sent

Abroad to beg for bread.

The next person they meet is a young child who is walking the streets without shoes. This is likely something the rich man had no concept of before meeting the young girl. She was “loud and bold” with her begging, and for a good reason. 

The girl tells them that her father is sick at home and, therefore, can’t work or be on the streets begging alongside her. She has to go out, make money, and then pay for bread to feed him. The implication is that if she doesn’t get the money, he’s going to die. 

The poet uses parallelism in these lines as the two characters move from experience to experience. He starts the stanzas with “We met” and follows the description with a question about why the individual is out in the winter cold. The same pattern presents itself in stanzas three and five. 

Stanzas Seven and Eight 

We saw a woman sitting down

Upon a stone to rest,

She had a baby at her back

And another at her breast;

I ask’d her why she loiter’d there

When the wind it was so chill;

She turn’d her head and bade the child

That scream’d behind be still.

The next person they meet is a woman with a “baby at her back,” or riding on her back and nursing another child. She has two lives in her hands and more mouths to feed than she can afford. She’s out in the cold, as all the characters in this poem are, out of necessity. 

Before she can tell them what she’s doing outside, she has to quiet the child on her back. This adds to the overall scene and the reader’s ability to imagine what it would be like to be the narrator’s companion. 

Stanza Nine

She told us that her husband served

A soldier, far away,

And therefore to her parish she

Was begging back her way.

The child presumably stops screaming for long enough for the woman to tell the narrator that her husband is in the military and is working as a soldier far away from home. She is trying to find safety and money for her children and herself. It’s not clear whether or not the husband has died, but it’s certainly a possibility that would make their situation all the more desperate. 

It’s important to remember that this poem was composed in the late 1700s and that women during this time were incredibly hard-pressed to support themselves in a world that looked down on women having real, independent jobs. Plus, with two children to care for, the possibility of finding work is nearly impossible for this woman. 

Stanzas Ten, Eleven, and Twelve 

We met a girl; her dress was loose

And sunken was her eye,

Who with the wanton’s hollow voice

Address’d the passers by;

I ask’d her what there was in guilt

That could her heart allure

To shame, disease, and late remorse?

She answer’d, she was poor.

I turn’d me to the rich man then

For silently stood he,

You ask’d me why the Poor complain,

And these have answer’d thee.

The final person the travelers meet is a young girl who the speaker implies is a sex worker. She calls out in “the wanton’s hollow tone.” The word “hollow” implies that she’s become numb to her situation and is consumed by desperation and need. 

The narrator asks her how she can be out there on the street doing the job she’s doing when “shame, disease, and late remorse” are all things she could experience. The answer is delivered with unmistakable clarity. The woman is “poor” and has no other choice. 

The travels end there with the final stanza returning to the narrator and the rich man. The narrator asks the rich man if he received an answer to his question about why the poor complain about their situations. He “stood silently” in observation of all they’d seen and was clearly shocked and appalled by the truth of the world. 

Living as he does, the rich man has no prior comprehension of the lives of the lower classes and most desperate members of society. The poem implies that his perspective changed after this important night’s walk with the narrator. 

FAQs 

What is the message of ‘The Complaints of the Poor?’ 

The message of this poem is that the upper classes have no understanding of the ways that the lower classes, many of whom are suffering from extreme poverty, or suffering.

What is the purpose of ‘The Complaints of the Poor?’ 

The purpose of this poem is to illuminate ways that impoverished citizens are suffering on a day-to-day basis and how painful it is to lack proper amenities.

What kind of poem is ‘The Complaints of the Poor?’

‘The Complaints of the Poor’ is a ballad. It’s divided into twelve quatrains, each of which rhymes ABCB. The lines alternative between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter

What is ‘The Complaints of the Poor’ about? 

It is about a journey that two people take through a city at night and the impoverished people they meet. One of these men is a “rich man” who doesn’t understand the lives of the poor. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Robert Southey poems. For example:

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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