Posted by: Casey L | October 14, 2018

“The Famine Year”: Culpability and Decomposition

Depictions of the famine-stricken Irish in photography often relieve the Victorian viewer of blame. They may indulge in sympathy for the suffering without feeling any responsibility or outrage. At best, the feelings evoked are of charity, an abstract desire to help, particularly since the Irish are generalized as other, a helpless mass. Jane Wilde (née Elgee) uses this convention of pathos in “The Famine Year” to produce a different effect, one that is grounded in evoking guilt.

A few important shifts in the poem mark the loss of the Irish’s humanity. The “gaunt crowd” (15) that is composed of the Irish forced from their homes becomes at the end of the poem a “spectral army” (47). Parallelism is important because it reinforces the cause and effect relationship between the abandonment of the Irish people, their loss of life, and the uniting effect of their shared suffering. Expounding on culpability, the full line is “A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we’ll stand,” a line that personifies the dead. Losing life ironically empowers the Irish to take on a new, united form—ironic because the dead will not rise, and because famine is disempowering. In both lines, and throughout the poem, the individual is erased in favor of the masses.

The language and imagery used in the poem are overwhelmingly negative. There are only three lines with positive words, and each can be thought of as the deprivation of presupposed comforts: “God meant you but to smile within your mother’s soft embraces” (10), “Better, infant, thou wert smothered in thy mother’s first caresses” (24), and “Now is your hour of pleasurebask ye in the world’s caress” (43, emphases added). Lack is felt better when juxtaposed with what the Irish deserve. Unlike the physical, racialized markers of difference depicted in cartoons, the markers of difference in the poem are between the healthy potential (or healthy English) and unhealthy reality (or unhealthy Irish). Line 10 sets up the idea of a God-given right to pure bodily comfort. Line 24 seems even more unnatural as a result, since the mother directly unwillingly opposes God’s intent. The ultimate sympathetic figures to strike down are the child and its mother. With the simplest pleasures squashed by the speaker—smiling, embracing, experiencing a mother’s love—the reader is forced to acknowledge what they have taken for granted. This culminates in line 43, in which the speaker unites these arguments to argue the supposed English readers (or at least the upper classes among them) have enjoyed relative safety and comfort of their privileged stance in the physical realm, not where God wields the most power.

Compared to a single photograph or an ad requesting aid for those in need, the poem is more akin to a lengthy documentary; Wilde strives to show the process of starvation and mass suffering over time. Through famine, the Irish become animal and skeletal. “Some of us grow cold and white” (14) becomes “our whitening bones” (44), a depiction of the body decomposing. Although the poem is not grounded in political context, the perpetrators are bookended in the first and last stanzas, so the deterioration is not inevitable. While those who deprived the Irish of food were aware of the “Fainting forms, hunger-stricken,” (3) from the beginning, they allowed the fainting to become deadly: “One by one they’re falling round us, their pale faces to the sky” (33). The causality of the tragedy is created by parallel imagery, an escalation that may be partly obscured by the repetition within stanzas. Among the shifting perspectives and smaller-scale comparisons, this parallel imagery penetrates deeper into the psyche. Ultimately, the inhumanity and dehumanization in the poem create a want of humanization that could have only been granted from the English state, but that, in Wilde’s view, can now only come from God.


Wilde, Jane. “The Famine Year.” 1847.


  1. I looked up other poems written by Lady Wilde because I assumed she probably had a collection of poems relating to Ireland’s struggles in the famine. Two poems of hers I found include “The Exodus” and “A Lament for the Potato.” I use these to compare the narrative voices Wilde employs in addressing her audience. I provide links below in case any of you want to read these poems yourselves.

    In “The Exodus,” Lady Wilde opens with the following stanza:

    “A Million A Decade!” Calmly and cold
    The units are read by our statesmen sage;
    Little they think of a Nation old,
    Fading away from History’s page;
    Outcast weeds by a desolate sea
    Fallen leaves of Humanity.

    “A Million a Decade” becomes a recurring lyric within the poem as she transforms data, like that told overseas in newspapers and by political figures, into visual details of what it means to have a million deaths in Ireland. (The first stanza is also relevant in thinking through ways to read and interpret history, if we go back to Foucault and Benjamin). She tells of a million “human wrecks, corpses lying in fever sheds,” and men “strewn like blasted trees on the sod, men that were made in the image of God.” This poem differs from “The Famine Year” because Lady Wilde doesn’t give us the active voices of the living/suffering but now zooms in on the direct effects of the famine, the literal deaths, and the hypocrisy of what these deaths mean to the reader.

    The statistics here become another form of evidence of the blame upon the British State, as she ends her poem: “Count our dead—before Angels and Men, / Ye’re judged and doomed by the Statist’s pen.” At first I misread this as “Satan’s pen” (a fitting mistake) as Lady Wilde accuses the entire British state as a political system complicit in causing the deaths of the Irish Famine. Her title “The Exodus” also applies to both the mass emigration out of Ireland and the exodus of a million plus Irish people who exited entirely from this world in their deaths, in addition to its biblical reference. It is estimated that approximately one million people died and another one million people emigrated during the famine years. I like reading this poem after “The Famine Year” because her tactics shift from the humanizing collection of different voices in “The Famine Year” to the mass genocide and rage behind “A Million a Decade” that shines through in the direct attack of “ye,” the reader.

    The other poem is “A Lament for the Potato.” This ode really empathizes for the land itself, just like we talked about how Lady Wilde does in the “The Famine Year” as well. It is a good poem to juxtapose with the other two because this poem seems to be written for a different audience than the other poems. Its main goal is not to enact blame but to mourn the cultural loss caused by the famine.The first stanza of the potato ode reads:

    There is woe, there is clamour, in our desolated land,
    And wailing lamentation from a famine‐stricken band;
    And weeping are the multitudes in sorrow and despair,
    For the green fields of Munster lying desolate and bare.
    Woe for Lorc’s ancient kingdom, sunk in slavery and grief;
    Plundered, ruined, are our gentry, our people, and their Chief;

    The poem appeals to “Lorc’s ancient land” several times, with Lorc or Lorcan as the ancient King of Munster in medieval tradition. Lady Wilde places us in a vivid history of the land and of ownership and legacy, with Lorc as an ancient name meaning “fierce.” In addition, she talks about the Potato itself as an “old, familiar dish”—without it, the music stops, and there are “no flowers, no sweet honey, and no beauty can be found.” This poem creates a sense of loss, kinship, and Irish culture and also reclaims “Lorc’s ancient land” for its people again.

    Here are the links for reference:

    “The Exodus” by Lady Jane Wilde:

    “A Lament for the Potato” by Lady Jane Wilde:

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