Poem #14: Wish for an Overcoat by Alfred Islay Walden

Estimated Reading Time:  5  minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleWish for an Overcoat

Author: Alfred Islay Walden

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Oh! had I now an overcoat,
   For I am nearly freezing;
My head and lungs are stopped with cold,
   And often I am sneezing.

And, too, while passing through the street,
   Where merchants all are greeting,
They say, young man this is the coat
   That you should wear to meeting.

Then, looking down upon my feet,
   For there my boots are bursting,
With upturned heels and grinning toes,
   With tacks which long were rusting.

Ah! how they view my doeskin pants
   With long and crooked stitches,
They say, young man would you not like
   To have some other breeches?

My head is also hatless too,
   The wind is swiftly blowing,
They say, young man will you not freeze?
   See ye not how it’s snowing?

And now they take me by the hand,
   And lead me toward the store,
And some are pulling down the coats
   Before I reach the door.

So walk I in, their goods to price,
   To quench a thirst that’s burning,
And freely would I buy a coat,
   But nothing I am earning.

They say to me, I should have known,
   That winter time was coming,
When I was roaming through the park,
   With birds around me humming.

Their logic’s true, I must confess,
   And all they say is pleasant;
But did I know that I would have
   No overcoat at present?

To satisfy these craving Jews,
   To buy I am not able,
For it is more than I can do
   To meet my wants at table.

Therefore my skin will toughly grow,
   Will grant to me this favor,
That I may learn to stand as much
   As little Jack, the sailor.

And if I live till winter’s passed,
   Though nature’s harps unstringing,
I then will fly to yon woodland
   To hear the oak trees singing.

Then I will not on hero’s fame,
   Ride swiftly on to victory,
Although my saddle may be made
   Of cotton sacks or hickory.

But if I die, farewell to all,
   Oh! who will tell the story,
That I have lived a noble life.
   And now gone home to glory?

Yes, who will chant a song of praise
   For me—who will be weeping—
When I have yielded to the grave,
   And ’mid the dead am sleeping?

But some will ask, “how did he die?
   It was without my knowing;
Was it because he caught a cold,
   Last year when it was snowing?”

The answer now comes hurling back,
   In words I cannot utter,
It was not by a cold alone,
   But partly bread and butter.

I want to like this poem. I appreciate how it is clear what the speaker needs in order to thrive but because he does not have money, he is left to die is a central American theme (it's not rags to riches; but rags to ditches). It's around the middle of the poem, that the speaker gets to this point that he can't buy if he doesn't have money and the store owners respond with the (also truly American) response of "you should have known better" or "it's your own fault".  Blaming the poor for being poor and not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps remains a popular means of discarding and disenfranchising the poor in the US.  And of course, this failure of society to care for its poor comes back to us in the final lines of the poem, when the speaker says, "It was not by cold alone, but partly bread and butter." The cold didn't kill him but the failure of society to help him survive.

There's also a vein here about what it means to be celebrated in one's life and while that is typical "heroes" who face insurmountable odds, hereto, the speaker calls that out, saying that were he to survive the winter--a fierce and formidable foe--without any protections, he would still not be given a hero's welcome, though he should deserve it.  As a side note, the mention of "little Jack, the sailor" in the eleventh stanza stood out to me as it seems a specific point. Upon searching with the term, I stumbled upon a song about "Little Jack, the Sailor" that was popular at the time https://www.loc.gov/resource/sm1878.13828.0?st=gallery.  

So what keeps me from fully endorsing the poem is the tenth stanza where the speaker labels the shopowners as "craving Jews", thus upholding an antisemitic stereotype of Jewish people. It feels unnecessary and unwonted for many reasons and while some can say "it was the times"--it just doesn't sit well with me and undermines much of the poem's drive about caring about people regardless of who they are.  

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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