AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Thomas Hood's quirky, resonant, and disturbing piece 'A Lay of Real Life', first published in the Comic Annual for 1835, has not previously been recognized as a literary response to a poem by John Clare, entitled 'My Mary', first published in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820).
Hood's poem is a sequence of rhetorical questions, which progress ruthlessly through the catalogue of the relations of the narrator, accusing them all of selfish and exploitative behaviour, until we are left with the bare reflection that the only individual who has ever cared for the speaker is himself:
Who ruined me ere I was born, Sold every acre, grass or corn, And left the next heir all forlorn? My Grandfather.
Who left me in my seventh year, A comfort to my mother dear, And Mr. Pope, the overseer? My Father.
Who let me starve, to buy her gin, Till all my bones came through my skin, Then called me 'ugly little sin?' My Mother.(1)
It is a stark poem, reminding us that Hood's vein of social protest developed in near alliance to his 'comic' writing. The power of the content to shock - particularly its bold refutation of the warm domestic tableau which was part of much Victorian and pre-Victorian verse - is reinforced by its dogmatic stanzaic pattern, which knocks pointedly, with the irony inherent in its repetitive rhetorical demands, the triple rhyme, and the withheld 'punchline' answer - at the door of conventional lyric.
It adds further levels of interest to Hood's achievement in this poem, to know that the stanza pattern is that of John Clare's 'My Mary'. For Clare's poem is itself a parodic response to a poem of Cowper's: 'To Mary' (1803). Clare's 'My Mary' addresses itself to a serving maid, who is supposed to be the narrator's sweetheart. It turns the formal etiquette of the love lyric, however, to the unexpected purpose of emphasizing the unprepossessing physical …