Ebenezer Elliott statue

Ebenezer Elliott statue, Weston Park, Western Bank, Sheffield, U.K. Photo by Terry Robinson. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy

Ebenezer Elliott (17 March 1781 - 1 December 1849) was an English poet, known as the "Poet of the People" and the "Corn Law Rhymer."

Life Edit


Elliott was born at Masborough, Yorkshire. In his youth he worked in an iron-foundry, and in 1821 he took up the same business on his own account with success. He is best known by his poems on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and especially for his denunciations of the Corn Laws, which gained for him the title of the "Corn Law Rhymer." Though now little read, he had considerable poetic gift. His principal poems are Corn Law Rhymes (1831), The Ranter, and The Village Patriarch (1829).[1]

Youth and familyEdit

Ebenezer Elliott 2

Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849) as a young man. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Elliott was born at the New Foundry, Masborough, parish of Rotherham, Yorkshire. His father's ancestors were border raiders, "thieves, neither Scotch nor English, who lived on the cattle they stole from both." His father, known as "Devil Elliott," was engaged in the iron trade. He was in politics an extreme radical, and in religion nn ultra-Calvinist. His mother came from near Huddersfield, where from time immemorial her ancestors had lived on their lot of freehold ground. Her health was bad, and made her life 'one long sigh.' Elliott was one of a family of 11, of whom 8 reached mature life.[2]

Elliott was baptised by Tommy Wright, a tinker, of the same religious persuasion as the father. He was first educated at a dame's school, then under Joseph Ramsbotham at Hollis school, where he was "taught to write and little more." Various changes of school followed. In his 6th year he had the small-pox, which left him "fear-fully disfigured and six weeks blind." This increased a natural timidity of disposition and fondness for solitude.[2]

About 14 he began to read extensively on his own account. He kept this up, though early engaged in business, and from 16 to 23 working for his father without any other pecuniary reward than a little pocket-money. In his leisure hours he studied botany, collected plants and flowers, and was delighted at the appearance of "a beautiful green snake about a yard long, which on the fine Sabbath mornings about ten o'clock seemed to expect me at the top of Primrose Lane." His love of nature, he says, caused him "to desert both alehouse and chapel."[2]

Early writingEdit

When 17 he wrote his 1st poem, the "Vernal Walk," dedicated to Jane Austen. Other early pieces were "Second Nuptials" and "Night; or, The legend of Wharnecliffe," which last was described with some justice by the Monthly Review as the "Ne plus ultra" of German horror and bombast. His Tales of the Night, including "The Exile" and "Bothwell," were of more merit, and brought him high commendation from Southey.[2]

Then followed at various intervals Love, The Letter, They met again, Withered Wild Flowers, Spirits and Men. This last was an "epic poem" of the world before the flood, dedicated, "as evidence of my presumption and my despair," to poet James Montgomery.[2]

Business careerEdit

More practical and interesting, if more commonplace subjects, soon engaged Elliott's undivided attention. He had married at Rotherham. His wife brought him a small fortune. He invested it in the business, "already bankrupt beyond redemption," in which his father had a share(Searle, p. 93). The father had been already unfortunate in trading. His difficulties hastened his wife's death, and he himself died soon after her. Elliott's efforts were unable to retrieve the fortunes of the firm. After some years of strenuous effort he lost every penny he had in the world. His own misfortunes,[2] as well as those of his parents, he attributed to the operation of the corn laws.[3]

In 1821 his wife's relatives raised a little money, and with this as capital he started in business in the iron trade in Sheffield. On the whole he was very prosperous for a number of years. Some days he made as much as £20 without leaving his counting-house, or even seeing the goods from which he made the profits. His prosperity attained its highest point in 1837, when he ought, he says, to have retired. He lost heavily after that for some time, but was able notwithstanding to settle up his business and leave Sheffield in 1842 with about £6,000 His losses here were again, he thought, due to the manner in which the corn laws impeded his efforts.[3]

At Sheffield Elliott was most active in literature and politics, as well as in commerce. The bust of Shakespeare in his counting-house, the casts of Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon in his workshop typified the fact that he had other interests besides money-making. He engaged in the reform agitation, but was disappointed at what he thought the small results of the measure. He then engaged actively in the chartist movement, and was present a as delegate from Sheffield in the great public meeting held in Palace Yard, Westminster, in 1838.[3]

"Corn Law Rhymer"Edit

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Ebenezer Elliott, from Elliott's Poems, 1834. Courtesy Internet Archive.

When O'Connor induced the chartists to repudiate the corn law repeal agitation, he withdrew from the chartist movement, for his hatred of the 'bread tax' was all through the deepest principle in his life. He believed it had caused his father's ruin, his own losses and disappointments, both as workman and capitalist; it was ruining the country, and would cause a terrible revolution. Thus all his efforts came to be directed to the repeal agitation. 'Our labour, our skill, our profits, our hopes, our lives, our children's souls are bread taxed,' he exclaims. He scarcely spoke or wrote of anything besides the corn laws. My heart, he writes,

. . . once soft as woman's tears, is gnarled
In the gloating on the ills I cannot cure.[3]

It was this state of mind that produced the 'Corn-law Rhymes' (1831), 'Indignatio facit versus.' Animated by somewhat of the same feelings are The Ranter, The Village Patriarch (1829), and The Splendid Village, all vividly describing life among the poor in England. Elliott also wrote Keronah: A drama; a brief and somewhat curious piece on Napoleon Bonaparte, entitled Great Folks at Home; and a large number of miscellaneous poems, including Rhymed Rambles.[3]

Last yearsEdit

After his retirement from business in 1841 Elliott lived at Great Houghton, near Barnsley, where he was chiefly occupied in literary pursuits. Elliott had a family of 13 children, most of whom, together with his wife, survived him. Very shortly before his death his daughter was married to John Watkins, his biographer.[3]

Elliott was a small, meek-looking man. Though engaged in many almost revolutionary movements, and though once in danger of prosecution, he was really conservative by nature, and brought up 2 of his sons as clergymen of the established church. It was only under a burning sense of injustice that he acted as he did. "My feelings," he says, "have been hammered until they have become cold-short, and are apt to snap and fly off in sarcasms."[3]

But except when roused he was good-natured and pleasant; too much given, his friends thought, to say kind things to the many scribblers who in later days sent their verses to him. "I do not like to give pain," he remarked; "writing will do these poor devils no harm, but good, and save them from worse things." As a speaker, Elliott was practical and vigorous, though at times given to extravagant statements.[3]

He died at Great Houghton, having lived to see the hated "bread tax" abolished, and was buried at Darfield Church.[3]

Writing Edit

There are occasional passages of genuine inspiration in all his earlier poems, but the turgid and pseudo-romantic also largely figure there. Imperfections of education and a want of humour fully account for the defects.[2]

The Corn Law Rhymes are free from the straining after effect, and from the rhapsodies, commonplaces, and absurdities which disfigure much of Elliott's other poetry. Representing the feelings of the opposers of the corn laws, the rhymes give us a truer idea of the fierce passion of the time than even the speeches of Cobden and Bright.[3]

They are couched in vigorous and direct language, and are full of graphic phrases. The bread tax has "its maw like the grave;" the poacher "feeds on partridge because bread is dear;" bad government is

The deadly will that takes
What labour ought to keep;
It is the deadly power that makes
Bread dear and labour cheap.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by Edward Dowden

"My feelings have been hammered until they have become cold-short, and are apt to snap and fly off in sarcasms." The betrayal of sensitiveness, the apology for anger in these words, might lead one to surmise that the writer, Ebenezer Elliott, steel-merchant and poet, was no broad-thewed forger of the weapons of revolution who took to his trade with a will. Had one met him, instead of the ‘burly ironmonger’ described by an American visitor, one would have seen a man slender and of middle stature, with narrow forehead, bushy eyebrows under which gleamed the vivid fire of grey-blue eyes, sensitive nostrils, and a mouth apt to express love as much as scorn. It was not the bread-tax that first made him a poet, but the picture of a primrose in Sowerby’s English Botany; this sent him to country lanes, the stream-side, and the moor, and he found his friends in the dragon-fly, the kingfisher, the green snake, and the nightingales of Basingthorpe Spring. Sensitiveness was more Elliott’s characteristic than strength, and what strength he had was of an ardent, eager kind, less muscular than nervous.

Elliott’s imagination was ambitious, and imperfectly trained: he accordingly dealt with large and passionate themes, entering into them with complete abandon; and he was hurried on to passages of genuine inspiration; real heights and depths were within his range; heavenly lights alternate with nether darkness. Few of his longer poems, however, possess imaginative ordonnance; from the sublime he could pass to the turgid; from the pathetic to the pseudo-romantic; and therefore few of these longer poems can be read with satisfaction in each as a whole. Nothing of worth that Elliott wrote was caught out of the air; each poem had its roots in fact; but the colouring in his earlier pieces is sometimes extravagant: as he matured, his imagination gravitated from the romantic to the real. There are not many figures in English poetry drawn from real life worthier of regard than the Ranter, Elliott’s pale preacher of reform on Shirecliffe height, and his Village Patriarch, the blind lone father, with wind-blown venerable hair, still unbowed after his hundred years; though seeming coeval with the cliffs around, still a living and heroic pattern of English manhood.

The wild flowers and the free wild streams of Yorkshire never found a more eager and faithful lover than Ebenezer Elliott; but mere sunlight and pure air delight him. The silence or living sounds of the fields or the moor bring healing and refreshment to an ear harassed by the din of machinery; the wide peaceful brightness is a benediction to an eye smarting from blear haze of the myriad-chimneyed city. Animal refreshment rises, by degrees, to gratitude, exaltation, worship.

But from the wilderness his heart full of passionate tenderness drew him back to the troubled walks of men. His poetry could not be like

‘The child
That gathers daisies from the lap of May,
With prattle sweeter than the bloomy wild.’

The indignation of the workers of England against the injustice of their lot found a voice in the Corn Law Rhymer. His anger is that of a sweet nature perforce turned bitter; this strife, he feels, may for ever mar his better self, yet it cannot be abandoned:—

‘My heart, once soft as woman’s tear, is gnarled
With gloating on the ills I cannot cure;’

and still he "wooes Contention," for in the end "her dower is sure." The sorrows of oppressed toil were sung by Elliott with a sincerity which makes amends for some imaginative crudeness. His pathos is not hard and dry like that of Crabbe; it is not that of a student of human misery, but that of a loving fellow-sufferer. And his ideal of happiness for the working man is simple and refined—some leisure, flowers, a good book, a neat home, a happy wife, and glad innocent children.[4]

The People's AnthemEdit

Main article: The People's Anthem / Ebenezer Elliott

This was among Elliott’s last poems. It was written for music in 1847, and was usually sung to the tune "Commonwealth". The People’s Anthem originally appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Review in 1848. The refrain “God save the people!” parodies the British national anthem, God Save the Queen and demands support for ordinary people instead. Despite its huge popularity, some churches refused to use hymn books which contained it, as it can also be seen as a criticism of God. In his notes on the poem, Elliott demanded that the vote be given to all responsible householders. “The People’s Anthem” was a great favorite for many years, and in the 1920s it was suggested that Elliott’s poem qualified him to be designated Poet Laureate of the League of Nations.[5]


Towards the end of his life, Elliott suffered much pain and depression. His thoughts often turned to his own death and he wrote his own epitaph:

The Poet's Epitaph

Stop, Mortal! Here thy brother lies,
The Poet of the Poor
His books were rivers, woods and skies,
The meadow and the moor,
His teachers were the torn hearts’ wail,
The tyrant, and the slave,
The street, the factory, the jail,
The palace – and the grave!
The meanest thing, earth’s feeblest worm,
He fear’d to scorn or hate;
And honour’d in a peasant’s form
The equal of the great.
But if he loved the rich who make
The poor man’s little more,
Ill could he praise the rich who take
From plunder’d labour’s store
A hand to do, a head to plan,
A heart to feel and dare –
Tell man’s worst foes, here lies the man
Who drew them as they are.[5]

Recognition Edit

Ebenezer elliott statue(2)

Ebenezer Elliott statue and information board, Weston Park, Western Bank, Sheffield. Photo by Terry Robinson. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy

After Ebenezer Elliott's death, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem in his memory, titled Elliott.

A bronze statue to his memory, by Burnard of London, was subscribed for by the working men of Sheffield, and erected at a cost of £600 in the market-nlace of that town, in 1854. Landor wrote a fine ode on the occasion. The statue was afterwards removed to Weston Park, Sheffield.[3]

2 of his poems, "Battle Song" and "Plaint", were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[6] [7]

His poem "The People's Anthem" was set to music by Stephen Schwartz (as "Save the People") in 1971, and used in the play and movie Godspell.




Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[9]

Poems of Ebenezer ElliottEdit

"In these days..

"In these days..." by Ebenezer Elliott

  1. The People's Anthem

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Watt, Francis (1889) "Elliott, Ebenezer" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 17 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 266-268 . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 10, 2018.
  • Ebenezer Elliott: Corn Law Rhymer & Poet of the Poor by Keith Morris & Ray Hearne, (Rotherwood Press, Oct 2002, ISBN 0-903666-95-2)


  1. John William Cousin, "Elliott, Ebenezer," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 129. Web, Jan. 10, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Watt, 288.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 Watt, 267.
  4. from Edward Dowden, "Critical Introduction: Ebenezer Elliott (1781–1849)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 14, 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Ebenezer Elliott," Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation. Web, Jan. 10, 2018.
  6. "Battle Song", Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 13, 2012.
  7. "Plaint", Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 13, 2012.
  8. Life, Poetry, and Letters of Ebenezer Elliott: With an abstract of his politics, Internet Archive. Web, Aug. 9, 2013.
  9. Search results = au:Ebenezer Elliott, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Aug. 9, 2013.

External links Edit

Audio / video

PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Elliott, Ebenezer

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