Robert Southey

1774 - 1843 / Bristol / England

Wat Tyler - Act I



Wat Tyler at work within. A May-pole
before the Door.



CHEERFUL on this holiday,
Welcome we the merry May.

On ev'ry sunny hillock spread,
The pale primrose rears her head;
Rich with sweets the western gale
Sweeps along the cowslip'd dale.
Every bank with violets gay,
Smiles to welcome in the May.

The linnet from the budding grove,
Chirps her vernal song of love.
The copse resounds the throstle's notes,
On each wild gale sweet music floats;
And melody from every spray,
Welcomes in the merry May.

Cheerful on this holiday,
Welcome we the merry May.


During the Dance, Tyler lays down his
Hammer, and sits mournfully down before
his Door.

[To him.


Why so sad, neighbour?—do not these gay sports,
This revelry of youth, recall the days
When we too mingled in the revelry;
And lightly tripping in the morris dance
Welcomed the merry month?

Aye, we were young;
No cares had quell'd the hey-day of the blood:
We sported deftly in the April morning,
Nor mark'd the black clouds gathering o'er our noon;
Nor fear'd the storm of night.

Beshrew me, Tyler,
But my heart joys to see the imps so cheerful!
Young, hale, and happy, why should they destroy
These blessings by reflection?

Look ye, neighbour—
You have known me long.

Since we were boys together,
And play'd at barley-brake, and danc'd the morris:—
Some five-and-twenty years!

Was not I young,
And hale and happy?

Cheerful as the best.

Have not I been a staid, hard-working man?
Up with the lark at labour—sober—honest—
Of an unblemish'd character?
Who doubts it,
There's never a man in Essex bears a better.

And shall not these, tho' young, and hale and happy,
Look on with sorrow to the future hour?
Shall not reflection poison all their pleasures?
When I—the honest, staid, hard-working
Tyler, Toil thro' the long course of the summer's day,
Still toiling, yet still poor! when with hard labour
Scarce can I furnish out my daily food—
And age comes on to steal away my strength,
And leave me poor and wretched! Why should this be?
My youth was regular—my labour constant—
I married an industrious, virtuous woman;
Nor while I toiled and sweated at the anvil,
Sat she neglectful of her spinning wheel.—
Hob—I have only six groats in the world,
And they must soon by law be taken from me.

Curse on these taxes—one succeeds another—
Our ministers—panders of a king's will—
Drain all our wealth away—waste it in revels—
And lure, or force away our boys, who should be
The props of our old age!—to fill their armies
And feed the crows of France! year follows year,
And still we madly prosecute the war;—
Draining our wealth—distressing our poor peasants—
Slaughtering our youths—and all to crown our chiefs
With Glory!—I detest the hell-sprung name.

What matters me who wears the crown of France?
Whether a Richard or a Charles possess it?
They reap the glory—they enjoy the spoil—
We pay—we bleed!—The sun would shine as cheerly
The rains of heaven as seasonably fall;
Tho' neither of these royal pests existed.

Nay—as for that, we poor men should fare better!
No legal robbers then should force away
The hard-earn'd wages of our honest toil.
The Parliament for ever cries more money,
The service of the state demands more money.
Just heaven! of what service is the state?

Oh! 'tis of vast importance! who should pay for
The luxuries and riots of the court?
Who should support the flaunting courtier's pride,
Pay for their midnight revels, their rich garments,
Did not the state enforce?—Think ye, my friend,
That I—a humble blacksmith, here at Deptford,
Would part with these six groats—earn'd by hard toil,
All that I have! To massacre the Frenchmen,
Murder as enemies men I never saw!
Did not the state compel me?
(Tax gatherers pass by)
There they go, privileg'd r———s!—
(PIERS and ALICE advance to him. )


Did we not dance it well to-day, my father?
You know I always lov'd these village sports,
Even from my infancy, and yet methinks
I never tript along the mead so gaily.
You know they chose me queen, and your friend Piers
Wreath'd me this cowslip garland for my head—
Is it not simple?—you are sad, my father!
You should have rested from your work to-day,
And given a few hours up to merriment—
But you are so serious!

Serious, my good girl!
I may well be so: when I look at thee
It makes me sad! thou art too fair a flower
To bear the wintry wind of poverty!

Yet I have often head you speak of riches
Even with contempt: they cannot purchase peace,
Or innocence; or virtue—sounder sleep
Waits on the weary plowman's lowly bed,
Than on the downy couch of luxury
Lulls the rich slave of pride and indolence.
I never wish for wealth! My arm is strong,
And I can purchase by it a coarse meal,
And hunger savours it.

Young man, thy mind
Has yet to bear the hard lesson of experience.
Thou art yet young, the blasting breath of want
Has not yet froze the current of thy blood.

Fare not the birds well, as from spray to spray
Blithsome they bound—yet find their simple food
Scattered abundantly?

No fancied boundaries of mine and thine
Restrain their wanderings: Nature gives enough
For all; but Man, with arrogant selfishness,
Proud of his heaps, hoards up superfluous stores
Robb'd from his weaker fellows, starves the poor,
Or gives to pity what he owes to justice!

So I have heard our good friend John Ball preach.

My father, wherefore was John Ball imprisoned?
Was he not charitable, good, and pious?
I have heard him say that all mankind are brethren,
And that like brethren they should love each other;—
Was not that doctrine pious?

Rank sedition—
High treason, every syllable, my child!
The priests cry out on him for heresy,
The nobles all detest him as a rebel,
And this good man, this minister of Christ,
This man, the friend and brother of mankind,
Lingers in the dark dungeon!—my dear Alice,
Retire awhile.

(Exit ALICE.)

Piers, I would speak to thee
Even with a father's love! you are much with me,
And I believe do court my conversation;
Thou could'st not chuse thee forth a truer friend;
I would fain see thee happy, but I fear
Thy very virtues will destroy thy peace.
My daughter—she is young—not yet fifteen—
Piers, thou art generous, and thy youthful heart
Warm with affection; this close intimacy
Will ere long grow to love.

Suppose it so;
Were that an evil, Walter? She is mild
And cheerful, and industrious—now methinks
With such a partner life would be most happy!
Why would you warn me then of wretchedness?
Is there an evil that can harm our lot?
I have been told the virtuous must be happy,
And have believed it true; tell me, my friend,
What shall disturb the virtuous?

A bitter foe?

Nay, you have often told me
That happiness does not consist in riches.

It is most true: but tell me, my dear boy,
Could'st thou be happy to behold thy wife
Pining with want?—the children of your loves
Clad in the squalid rags of wretchedness?
And when thy hard and unremitting toil
Had earn'd with pain a scanty recompense,
Could'st thou be patient when the law should rob thee,
And leave thee without bread and pennyless?

It is a dreadful picture.

'Tis a true one.

But yet methinks our sober industry
Might drive away the danger, 'tis but little
That I could wish—food for our frugal meals,
Raiment, however homely, and a bed
To shield us from the night.

Thy honest reason
Could wish no more: but were it not most wretched
To want the coarse food for the frugal meal?
And by the orders of your merciless lord,
If you by chance were guilty of being poor,
To be turned out adrift to the bleak world,
Unhoused, unfriended?—Piers, I have not been idle,
I never ate the bread of indolence—
Could Alice be more thrifty than her mother?
Yet but with one child, and that one, how good
Thou knowest, I scarcely can provide the wants
Of nature: look at these wolves of the law,
They come to drain me of my hard earn'd wages.
I have already paid the heavy tax
Laid on the wool that clothes me—on my leather,
On all the needful articles of life!
And now three groats (and I work'd hard to earn them)
The Parliament demands—and I must pay them,
Forsooth, for liberty to wear my head.—
Enter Tax-gatherers.

Three groats a head for all your family.

Why is this money gathered?—'tis a hard tax
On the poor labourer!—It can never be
That government should thus distress the people.
Go to the rich for money—honest labour
Ought to enjoy its fruits.

The state wants money.
War is expensive—'tis a glorious war,
A war of honour, and must be supported.—
Three groats a head.

There, three for my own head,
Three for my wife's!—what will the state tax next?

You have a daughter.

She is below the age—not yet fifteen.

You would evade the tax.—

Sir Officer,
I have paid you fairly what the law demands.
(Alice and her Mother enter the Shop. The Tax-gathers go to her. One of them lays hold of her. She screams. TYLER goes in.)

You say she's under age.
(ALICE screams again. TYLER knocks out the Tax-gatherer's Brains. His Companions fly.

A just revenge.

Most just indeed; but in the eye of the law
'Tis murder—and the murderer's lot is mine.
(PIERS goes out.)
(TYLER sits down mournfully. )

Fly, my dear father! let us leave this place
Before they raise pursuit.

Nay, nay, my child,
Flight would be useless—I have done my duty;
I have punish'd the brute insolence of lust,
And here will wait my doom.

Oh let us fly!
My husband, my dear husband!

Quit but this place,
And we may yet be safe, and happy too.

It would be useless, Alice—'twould but lengthen
A wretched life in fear.
(Cry without. )

Liberty! liberty!
(Enter Mob , HOB CARTER, &c.)
(Cry ) Liberty! liberty!— No Poll tax!— No War!

We have broke our chains—we will arise in anger—
The mighty multitude shall trample down
The handful that oppress them.

Have ye heard
So soon then of my murder?

Of your vengeance.
Piers ran throughout the village—told the news—
Cried out, to arms!—arm, arm for Liberty!
For Liberty and Justice!

My good friends,
Heed well your danger, or be resolute;
Learn to laugh menaces and force to scorn,
Or leave me. I dare answer the bold deed—
Death must come once; return you to your homes,
Protect my wife and child, and on my grave
Write why I died; perhaps the time may come,
When honest Justice shall applaud the deed.

Nay, nay,—we are oppressed, and have too long
Knelt at our proud lords' feet—we have too long
Obey'd their orders—bow'd to their caprices—
Sweated for them the wearying summer's day,
Wasted for them the wages of our toil;
Fought for them, conquer'd for them, bled for them
Still to be trampled on and still despis'd;
But we have broke our chains.

Piers is gone on
Thro' all the neighbouring villages, to spread
The glorious tidings.

He is hurried on
To Maidstone, to deliver good John Ball,
Our friend, our shepherd.

(Mob increases.)

Friends and Countrymen,
Will ye then rise to save an honest man
From the fierce clutches of the bloody law?
Oh do not call to mind my private wrongs,
That the state drain'd my hard-earned pittance from me;
That, of his office proud, the foul Collector
Durst with lewd hand seize on my darling child,
Insult her maiden modesty, and force
A father's hand to vengeance; heed not this:
Think not, my countrymen, on private wrongs,
Remember what yourselves have long endured.
Think of the insults, wrongs, and contumelies,
Ye bear from your proud lords—that your hard toil
Manures their fertile fields—you plow the earth,
You sow the corn, you reap the ripen'd harvest,—
They riot on the produce!—That, like beasts,
They sell you with their land—claim all the fruits
Which the kindly earth produces as their own.
The privilege, forsooth, of noble birth!
On, on to Freedom; feel but your own strength,
Be but resolved, and these destructive tyrants
Shall shrink before your vengeance.

On to London—
The tidings fly before us—the court trembles—
42 Total read