Too Old to Rat [poem by Henry Lawson, 3 April 1913]

[Editor: A poem by Henry Lawson, written in support of the trade union movement. Published in The Worker (Wagga Wagga, NSW), 3 April 1913.]

Too Old to Rat.

I don’t care if the cause be wrong,
Or if the cause be right —
I’ve had my day and sung my song
And fought the bitter fight.
In truth at times I can’t tell what
The men are driving at,
But I’ve been Union thirty years,
And I’m too old to rat.

Maybe, at times in those old days
Remembered now by few,
We did bite off in various ways
Much more than we could chew —
We paid in sodden strikers’ camps
Upon the blacksoil flat;
We paid in long and hungry tramps —
And I’m too old to rat.

The Queensland strike in Eighty-nine
And Ninety’s gloomy days —
The day the opera comp’ny sang
For us the Marseillaise.
The sea of faces stern and set,
The waiting “bitter cup,”
The hopeless hearts, unbeaten yet,
The storm cloud rushing up.

The fighting, dying “Boomerang”
Against the daily press;
The infant “Worker” holding out;
The families in distress;
The sudden tears of beaten men —
Oh! you remember that! —
Are memories that make my pen
Not worth its while to rat.

I’ve wept with them in strikers’ camps
Where shivered man and beast;
I’ve worn since then the badge of men
Of Hell! — and London East!
White faces by the flaring torch!
Wraith wives! — the slaves of Fat!
And ragged children in the rain —
Yes! — I’m too old to rat.

HENRY LAWSON.



Source:
The Worker (Wagga Wagga, NSW), 3 April 1913, p. 17

Editor’s notes:
bitter cup = something which is both unpleasant and unavoidable; a task which must be done, despite the expected unsavory consequences; to drink from the bitter cup is to accept one’s fate; the phrase is apparently derived from the Bible (John 18:11, Luke 22:42, Mark 10:38, Matthew 26:39 and 26:42), in which Jesus refers to a cup he must drink from (the New Living Translation version of the Bible, in Mark 10:38, quotes Jesus as saying “Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?”; also, the Book of Mormon, in 3 Nephi 11:11, quotes Jesus “I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me”)
See: 1) “John: Chapter 18”, King James Bible Online
2) “Luke: Chapter 22”, King James Bible Online
3) “Mark: Chapter 10”, King James Bible Online
4) “Matthew: Chapter 26”, King James Bible Online
5) “Mark 10:38 Parallel Verses”, BibleRef.com
6) “3 Nephi 11” (Book of Mormon), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Boomerang = The Boomerang was a pro-labour newspaper published in Brisbane (Queensland); founded by William Lane, it ran from 1887 to 1892

comp’ny = (vernacular) company

Fat = bosses; capitalists; capitalism

Marseillaise = the national anthem of France, written by Rouget de L’Isle in April 1792, when France was at war with Austria; it was originally entitled the “Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Army of the Rhine”), however, following the song’s use by volunteers from Marseille who marched into Paris in July 1792, it received the nickname of “La Marseillaise”; it was chosen as the French national anthem by the National Convention (the first government of the French Revolution) in 1795

rat = non-union labour used as strike-breakers (i.e. a non-union worker who has been hired to replace union workers during a strike), also known as a “scab”; “to rat” is to work during a strike, or to otherwise undermine a strike (such as crossing a picket line, whether as a worker or as a customer of the picketed company)

Worker = The Worker was a pro-labour newspaper published in Brisbane (Queensland), which ran from 1890 to 1974; there was also a different newspaper called The Worker (also known as The Australian Worker), which was originally published in Wagga Wagga (NSW), and then in Sydney (NSW), which ran from 1890 to 1974

wraith = something insubstantial, shadowy, or vaporous; an apparition or ghostlike image of someone, especially one that appears shortly before someone’s death; a ghost

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