Graduating from college in 1869, Will Carleton first worked as a newspaper journalist in Hillsdale. He had been in the habit of writing poetry as a youngster. His first significant work published was “Betsy and I Are Out,” a poignant tale of a divorce which was first published in the Toledo Blade, but then reprinted by Harper’s Weekly. This poem was soon followed in 1872 by “Over the Hill to the Poor House” developing the plight of the aged and those with indifferent families. This piece captured national attention and catapulted Carleton into literary prominence—a position he was to hold the rest of his life as he continued to write and to lecture from coast to coast.
OVER THE HILL TO THE POOR HOUSE
By Will Carleton
Over the hill to the poor-house I’m trudgin’ my weary way—
I, a woman of seventy, and only a trifle gray—
I, who am smart an’ chipper, for all the years I’ve told,
As many another woman that’s only half as old.
Over the hill to the poor-house—I can’t quite make it clear!
Over the hill to the poor-house—it seems so horrid queer!
Many a step I’ve taken a-toilin’ to and fro,
But this is a sort of journey I never thought to go.
What is the use of heapin’ on me a pauper’s shame?
Am I lazy or crazy? Am I blind or lame?
True, I am not so supple, nor yet so awful stout:
But charity ain’t no favor, if one can live without.
I am willin’ and anxious an’ ready any day
To work for a decent livin’, an’ pay my honest way;
For I can earn my victuals, an’ more too, I’ll be bound,
If any body only is willin’ to have me round.
Once I was young an’ han’some—I was, upon my soul—
Once my cheeks was roses, my eyes as black as coal;
An I can’t remember, in them days, of hearin’ people say,
For any kind of reason, that I was in their way.
‘Tain’t no use of boastin’, or talkin’ over free,
But many a house an’ home was open then to me
Many a han’some offer I had from likely men,
And nobody ever hinted that I was a burden then.
An when to John I was married, sure he was good and smart,
But he and all the neighbors would own I done my part;
For life was all before me, an’ I was young an’ strong,
And I worked the best that I could in tryin’ to get along.
An so we worked together; and life was hard, but gay,
With now and then a baby for to cheer us on our way;
Till we had half a dozen, an’ all growed clean an’ neat,
An’ went to school like other, an’ had enough to eat.
So we worked for the child’rn, and raised ‘em every one;
Worked for ‘em summer and winter, just as we ought to ’ve done;
Only perhaps we humored ‘em, which some good folks condemn.
But every couple’s child’rn’s a heap the best to them.
Strange how much we think of our blessed little ones!—
I’d have died for my daughters, I’d have died for my sons;
And God he made that rule of love; but when we’re old and gray,
I’ve noticed it sometimes somehow fails to work the other way.
Strange, another thing: when our boys an’ girls was grown,
An when, exceptin’ Charley, they’d left us there alone;
When John he nearer an’ nearer come, an’ dearer seemed to be,
The Lord of Hosts he come one day an’ took him away from me.
Still I was bound to struggle, an’ never to cringe or fall—
Still I worked for Charley, for Charley was now my all;
And Charley was pretty good to me, with scarce a word or frown,
Till at last he went a-courtin’, and brought a wife from town.
She was somewhat dressy, an’ hadn’t a pleasant smile—
She was quite conceity, and carried a heap o’ style;
But if ever I tried to be friends, I did with her, I know;
But she was hard and proud, an’ I couldn’t make it go.
She had an edication, an’ that was good for her;
But when she twitted me on mine, ‘twas carryin’ things too fur;
An' IL told her once, 'fore company (an'it almost made her sick),
That I never swallowed a grammar,or 'et 'rithmetic.
So ‘twas only a few days before the thing was done—
They was a family of themselves, and I another one;
And a very little cottage one family will do,
But I never have seen a house that was big enough for two.
An’ I never could speak to suit her, never could please her eye,
An’ it made me independent, and then I didn’t try;
But I was terribly staggered, an’ felt it like a blow,
When Charley turned ag’in me, an’ told me I could go.
I went to live with Susan, but Susan’s house was small,
And she was always a-hintin’ how snug it was for us all;
And what with her husband’s sister, and what with child’rn three,
‘Twas easy to discover that there wasn’t room for me.
An’ then I went to Thomas, the oldest son I’ve got,
For Thomas’s buildings’d cover the half of an acre lot;
But all the child’rn was on me—I couldn’t stand their sauce—
And Thomas said I needn’t think I was comin’ there to boss.
An’ then I wrote to Rebecca, my girl who lives out West,
And to Isaac, not far from her—some twenty miles at best;
And one of’em said’twas too warm there for any one so old,
And t’other had an opinion the climate was too cold.
So they have shirked and slighted me,an' shifted me about-
So they have well-nigh soured me,an' wore my old heart out;
But still I've borne up pretty well, an' wasn't much put down,
Till Charley went to the poor-master, an' put me on the town.
Over the hill to the poor-house--my chil'rn dear, good-by!
Many a night I've watched you when only God was nigh;
And God 'll judge between us; but I will al'ays pray
That you shall never suffer the half I do to-day.
The Will Carleton Poor House