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Ebenezer Elliott Was The Most Badass Slam Poet Of The 19th Century

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During the early- to mid-1800s, a group of British poets marshaled their talents to inspire a popular movement against the "Corn Laws," a set of government policies to further pad the pockets of land-owning aristocrats. Among the most powerful poems were the Corn Law Rhymes, penned by businessman Ebenezer Elliott.

As the JSTOR Daily blog notes, the first consequential "Corn Law" sought to inflate the price of essential grains such as wheat, barley and oats high by blocking cheaper grains from abroad, and was passed in 1815.


The net effect of this law, known as the Importation Act, was to stick the poor with higher food prices in order to serve a land-owning oligarchy with a stranglehold over the government. There were violent riots in the streets, and the government even deployed the military to protect legislators:

Despite popular opposition and organized resistance, not only did parliament pass the Importation Act, they maintained the policy for decades to come—keeping the cost of living high for British society in order to serve the politically powerful few.

The injustice of the Corn Laws—and the boneheaded economics behind it—inspired a generation of British intellectuals in the social sciences and arts who engaged in a war of words for reform. One of the leading poets of the day was Ebenezer Elliott…. a successful businessman and idealist based in Sheffield, who penned a series of poems called the Corn Law Rhymes, which were published in 1831 by the Sheffield Mechanics' Anti-Bread-Tax Society, an activist organization that he helped found.


Here is a portion of one of his poems called "Caged Rats":

"Ye coop us up, and tax our bread,

And wonder why we pine:

But ye are fat, and round, and red,

And fill'd with tax-bought wine.

Thus, twelve rats starve while three rats thrive,

(Like you on mine and me,)

When fifteen rats are caged alive,

With food for nine and three."

"Make haste, slow rogues! prohibit trade,

Prohibit honest gain;

Turn all the good that God hath made

To fear, and hate, and pain;

Till beggars all, assassins all,

All cannibals we be,

And death shall have no funeral,

From shipless sea to sea."

The Corn Law Rhymes made Elliot famous around the world. The British historian Asa Briggs called Elliott "the poet of economic revolution" — which Elliott himself described as the "greatest, the most beneficial, the only crimeless Revolution, which man has yet seen."