A Ballad on the Taxes

We pay though the nose for subjecting of foes. Abroad we’re defeated, at home we ‘re cheated.

The ideas of April are upon us and that means taxes. Just read this astoundingly relevant piece of tax outrage. It provides some consolation that “twas ever thus. 

A Ballad on the Taxes

by Edward Ward


Good people: What? Will you of all be bereft?
Will you never learn wit, while a penny is left?
We are all like the dog in the fable, betrayed,
To let go the substance and snap at the shade.
Our specious pretenses and foreign expenses
To war for religion will waste all our chink.
It’s clipped, and it’s snipped, it’s lent, and it’s spent,
Till ’tis gone, till ’tis gone, to the devil I think.


We pay for our newborn, and we pay for our dead;
We pay if we’re single, we pay if we wed;
Which shows that our merciful senate don’t fail
To begin at the head, and tax down to the tail.
We pay through the nose for subjecting of foes,
But for all our expenses, get nothing but blows.
Abroad we’re defeated, at home we’re cheated;
And the end on it, the end on it, the Lord above knows.


We have parted with all our old money, to show
How we foolishly hope for a plenty of new;
But might have remembered, when it came to the push,
That a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
We now like poor wretches are kept under hatches,
At rack and at manger, like beasts in the ark.
Since our burgesses and knights make us pay for our lights,
Why should we, why should we, be kept in the dark?

Edward Ward was writing of taxation in 17th century England. We pay though the nose for subjecting of foes. Abroad we’re defeated,at home we ‘re cheated. Indeed

That poem is in W.H.Auden’s anthology of light verse along with many other wordly delights.

Auden, of course, had his own tax lamentations.

In 1972 he was living in Austria and had been ill-advised about his tax liability as a resident. The tax people had claimed that Auden was liable – in part – because he had been inspired by the Austrian landscape to write poetry. Faced with a crushing tax bill, Auden shot off a letter to the Austrian tax authorities arguing:

In Austria I don’t earn a groschen; I only spend schillings . . . you say that there is now a street in Kirchstetten named Audenstrasse. That was a most friendly gesture by the Gemeinde, but I cannot be said to profit financially by it.

In conclusion, I must say this. If this, to my mind, unjust foolishness goes any further, I shall leave Austria for ever, never to return, which would be very sad for me and perhaps also for the shopkeepers. And, if I have to, I must tell you frankly, Gentlemen, that I am in a position to make a world-scandal.

A threat to create an international incident did the trick. The Austrian Chancellor Kreisky intervened and the bill was halved.

Centuries before Ward’s ballad – in 1381 –  Wat Tyler marched on London leading a band of rebels protesting the institution of a poll tax and demanding economic and social reforms. This Peasants Revolt gathered some early success but was soon crushed by the authorities. Tyler was killed by officers loyal to King Richard at Smithfield, London.

The Death of Wat Tyler (left to right: Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London (wielding sword); Wat Tyler; King Richard II; and Sir John Cavendish, esquire to the King (bearing lance)

Wat Tyler has remained a hero for English radicals ever since. William Blake remembered him with his engraving for Charles Allen’s History of England.

Wat Tyler and the Tax-Gatherer (after Henry Fuseli) 1797. William Blake 1757-1827

And here are three works all accepted by Her Majesty’s Government (UK) in lieu of taxes:

Mark Rothko

The Family 1971 William Roberts 1895-1980

Frank Auerbach
Mornington Crescent – Summer Morning

The featured image is from Payment of the Tithes, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, 1617.

Post a Comment

* (will not be published)

CommentLuv badge

Random Posts

%d bloggers like this: