19th Century

Poetry: I Had a Tender Mother Once

One of my favourite writers of the nineteenth century was George William MacArthur Reynolds. Although we know him primarily as a journalist and novelist today, he composed original poetry in practically all of his novels.

The poems were specifically tailored to the events of each chapter.

The following poem titled ‘I had a Tender Mother Once’ appears in The Mysteries of London at a point in the narrative when one of the main female characters, Ellen Monroe, has found herself in reduced circumstances, living in a damp, cold, dirty tenement with her father. She reflects on the loss of her mother when she espies a poem written on the wall by a previous occupant of the apartment.

I Had a Tender Mother Once

By G.W.M. Reynolds

I had a tender mother once.
Whose eyes so sad and mild
Beamed tearfully yet kindly on
Her little orphan child.
A father’s care I never knew;
But in that mother dear.
Was centred every thing to love,
To cherish, and revere!

I loved her with that fervent love
Which daughters only know;
And often o’er my little head
Her bitter tears would flow.
Perhaps she knew that death approached
To snatch her from my side;
And on one gloomy winter day
This tender mother died.

They laid her in the pauper’s ground,
And hurried o’er the prayer
It nearly broke my heart to think
That they should place her there.
And now It seems I see her still
Within her snowy shroud;
And in the dark and silent night
My spirit weeps aloud.

I know not how the years have passed
Since my poor mother died;
But I too have an orphan girl,
That grows up by my side.
O God! thou know’st I do not crave
To eat the bread of sloth:
I labour hard both day and night,
To earn enough for both!

But though I starve myself for her,
Yet hunger wastes her form:-
My God! and must that darling child
Soon feed the loathsome worm?
‘Tis vain – for I can work no more –
My eyes with toil are dim;
My fingers seem all paralyzed,
And stiff is every limb!

And now there is but one resource;
The pauper’s dreaded doom!
To hasten to the workhouse, and
There find a living tomb.
I know that they will separate
My darling child from me;
And though twill break our hearts, yet both
Must bow to that decree!

Henceforth our tears must fail apart.
Nor flow, together more;
And from to-day our prayers may not
Be mingled as before!
O God! is this the Christian creed,
So merciful and mild?
The daughter from the mother snatched,
The mother from her child!

Ah! we shall ne’er be blessed again
Till death has closed our eyes.
And we meet in the pauper’s ground
Where my poor mother lies.-
Though sad this chamber, it is bright
To what must be our doom;
The portal of the workhouse is
The entrance of the tomb!

G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘I had a Tender Mother Once’, in The Mysteries of London, 4 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1844–48), I, pp. 171–72.