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19th Century Poetry in Britain and America

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

Poetry and scrapbook by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Poetry and scrapbook by George Burgess (1829-1905)

The Poetic Era

This article is an overview of poetry written during the Victorian era in Britain and America, mostly from poems published in Victorian era newspapers and saved in a scrapbook by my great-great grandfather, George Burgess (1829-1905). His scrapbook has since been published on my genealogy website, Nathanville and is available for free viewing.

George Burgess, who lived in America for over 12 years from the age of 15 until his return to England in 1857, loved poetry; not only did he save many of his favourites in his scrapbook but he also wrote a few himself, one of which I love is 'Wanted a Barmaid', as featured below.

George Burgess has a wide taste in poetry that by collecting it in his scrapbook and writing his own gives a great insight into culture in Victorian Britain and 19th century America. A lot of the poetry he saved from newspaper publications, and the poetry he wrote (such as ‘Wanted a Barmaid’) were humorous; in fact a lot of his poetry about the evils of drink, including ‘Pastor Brandywine’ was humorous.

As with the humorous poetry the other poems he collected were topical subjects of the times; albeit many had a religious aspect. Many reflecting on life in the Victorian era that gives an insight into 19th century society and culture in Britain and America.

An early 19th Century American Poem

An early 19th Century American Poem

Early American Poetry

Newspaper Publication in the Western Post

'I Wud Not Die' by a Western Post, is one of my favourite early American poems, mainly because it shows the poor grammar in some of the American newspaper publications during the early Victorian Era.

Below is a translation into Modern English of the first paragraph; the full transcript and translation can be viewed on Nathanville's main website, link below:-

"I WOULD not die in winter,

When whisky punches flow -

When silly girls are skating

Over fields of ice and snow -

When sausage meat is frying,

And hickory nuts are thick (plentiful);

Oh! Who could think of dying,

Or even getting sick?"

When this poem was written (I guess early 19th century) the word 'Sass' mentioned in the third paragraph above meant 'garden vegetables'. However, by the mid-19th century in America and England the term "sass" (as a corruption of the word "saucy") became slang for 'to talk back in an impertinent way'. An example of how meanings of words can change over time.

Humour in Poetry

Wanted a Barmaid

This is a humorous poem written in the context of Victorian Society that depicts the perceived 19th century issues of drink.

This poem was written by my great-great grandfather (George Burgess) in February 1876, who as a lifelong teetotaller wrote this and other similarly humorous poems under the Temperance genre.

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Poems to Mark Special Events

Queen Victoria Golden Jubilee in 1887

The poem below, called 'The little bird whispered to me' was written to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, and the placement of a statue in Bristol, England to mark the occasion.

The Little Bird Whispered To Me

The Little Bird Whispered To Me

Poetry Spanning the Generations

My great-great grandfather (George Burgess), was a prolific writer who had a love of poetry. When I was a teenager I discovered his diary, scrapbook, poetry and other writings in my grandmother’s loft (attic); I sat down that evening and started to read it with fascination.

I was so impressed on reading his poetry that it inspired me to write my own, albeit a different style. A few years later I published his poetry, along with a collection of my own works; and since have done a couple of re-prints, the latest of which also includes some of my mother’s own poetry.

My great-great grandfather’s poetry, as with my mother’s tends to be humorous; whereas my style tends to be more factual. George Burgess would write poetry about the things close to his heart, particularly on the evils of drink and on matters of religion. My mother would write about daily life, looking on the bright side to give that twist of British humour. In contrast, my poetry reflects on nature and science; albeit one of my later ones gives a poetic overview of the history of Bristol.

Bristol Fashion

The Poem I Wrote About Bristol

Bristol city – from times of old, to present day,
Because of its geographical position,
Has always been of great importance – so they say.
You see – it’s all down to its noble location.

So, in the 14th Century, upon his word,
Ships and sailors, for the French Campaign – supplied,
Giving them to the King of England – Edward III.
And thanking us for services given, he sighed.

And therefore, we applied for a Royal Charter,
Our request; backed with money; for County status.
And so our wishes were met – without a martyr,
To become city, and county, without a fuss.

For 600 years a county in our own right,
A city and county of importance – you see.
Until we were re-organised, without a fight,
And alas demoted in 1973.

And also, the thriving seaport in times gone past,
Have always traded in many things – good and bad.
In wool we have handled – also – slaves too – alas.
Despite current problems, the docks are not a fad.

A great person `John Cabot’, from Bristol – he sailed,
With great delight, to discover - `the New Found Land’.
Upon his return, and with due pride – he was hailed.
To his honour; in Bristol – a tower now stands.

Another great man is `Isambard Kingdom Brunel’,
In Bristol, the famous `Suspension Bridge’ – he built,
Also from here, the `Great Western’ steamship – did sail.
Now – we renovate the `Great Britain’ – to the hilt.

In this grand city of `Bristol’ – we do now see,
Many a building of character – new and old.
There’s the Cathedral, and the University,
And many, more structures that do stand – sound and bold.


One of the poems my mother wrote was inspired by her not being able to find any Aniseed Balls where she lived. She sent her poem to the manufacturer, and in response they treated her to a free meal in a restaurant and a large jar of Aniseed Balls.

Her poem reads:-

This is the Saga of a poor Orpington lady
Deprived of my Aniseed Balls and suffering badly!
They told me in the shop at Orpington Station
That you are unable to keep up with demand for production
Of my favourite sweets – lovely Aniseed Balls.
They say that over-demand for these Balls is the cause;
That may be so, but to let an addict like me
Suffer from withdrawal symptoms is cruel you see.
So my dear Manufacturers down at Leytonstone
PLEASE take heed of me pleas, and my little moan
And get your staff working on those Aniseed Balls.
This will bring SO much pleasure to us Orpington souls.
We will soon gobble them up and thus bring you much profit,
As `top of the Balls’ chart – Aniseeds a HIT!

Whilst writing this tripe I would like to just add
That at Bognor Regis in September I shall be most sad
If Bond’s Aniseed Balls I am still unable to obtain
They had none last year, and this caused me great pain!
So PLEASE send your rep. Down to Bognor – Post Haste;
I promise you – on my honour – his journey he’ll not waste.
The shops down there stock other sweets made by you
So why don’t they sell your Aniseed Balls too?
To sell other sweets, but not Balls, is a great crime.
With apologies for my outburst – and for wasting your time
I remain, a faithful Bond’s Aniseed Ball addict for ever,
And hope that to Orpington Station Shop you’ll SOON deliver!

Free Viewing Source for Victorian Newspapers Online

My Nathanville genealogy website (url link below) give free access to view over 500 Victorian era newspapers; including a large section of British and American Poetry during the Victorian Era.

Are You a Poetry Lover

And What About Victorian Poetry

Poetry comes in many shapes and form so even if you like poetry in general no doubt you have your favourite.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Your views on Poetry - Tell us what you think of poetry

Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 13, 2017:

Thanks all for your feedback, I too Li-Li am picky about the poetry I like; and like you have found some of the poetry from the Victorian era to be an eye-opener.

Li-Li-ThePinkBookworm on February 01, 2013:

I am very picky about what poems I enjoy. I normally do not read poetry, but this lens has opened my eyes to some of the unique poems written in the Victorian era. Two of my favorite things, history and writing, combined :)

Li Li

LeechGatherer on April 22, 2012:

Poetry is a form of communication, one that specializes in both addressing and conveying all that is subjective about humanity. I can't imagine my life without it, for it would be a life bereft of not only written verse, but a large amount of music would be lost as well. My favorite poem currently, is Ode to Indolence by John Keats.....and during this brief break between semesters, I'm able to relate to the poem quite keenly.

anonymous on November 19, 2011:

I love this! I'll have to let my proof reader know that perhaps I have an early American Victorian spirit. This is a gem!

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