"A Woman Sat, In Unwomanly Rags, Plying Her Needle And Thread"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Hood, a minor romantic poet, wrote "The Song of the Shirt" to awaken the public to the hardships of workers in England. The woman in the poem is depicted as a widow who has to support her family by sewing for seven shillings a week. The destitute woman sings a song of protest: "'It is not linen you're wearing out/ But human creatures' lives . . . Oh, God! that bread should be so dear,/ And flesh and blood so cheap!'" The woman's heart and brain are "benumbed" by the ceaseless labor. She longs to breathe fresh air and enjoy nature. But she cannot even find time to weep. She is becoming like the steam engine, "A mere machine of iron and wood/ That toils for Mammon's sake,/ Without a brain to ponder and craze/ Or a heart to feel–and break!" The woman is a hopeless slave who "'has never a soul to save,'" but the poet wishes that her song "could reach the rich!" The first stanza describes the woman:

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread–
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the "Song of the Shirt."