Poem of the Day: ‘Faithless Nelly Gray’

Thomas Hood was one of the great comics of English poetry, even if his most commonly anthologized poems are in the sentimental or popular vein.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The poet Thomas Hood. Via Wikimedia Commons

It’s curious that Thomas Hood (1799–1845) should commonly be listed as a comic poet — one of the great comics of English poetry. And yet, at the same time, his most commonly anthologized poems are such sentimental stuff as “I Remember, I Remember” and such popular plaints about the sufferings of the working class as “The Song of the Shirt,” and “The Bridge of Sighs.”

Born on May 23, Hood has his birthday this week, and perhaps it’s worth remembering why he had a reputation for comedy, for one of our lighter Wednesday poems here in The New York Sun. His 1844 poem “No!” is typical of his word play: a run of phrases and words that start with “no.” Yet “Faithless Nelly Gray” remains the model.

The poor soldier Ben Battle: “a cannon-ball took off his legs,” Hood relates, “So he laid down his arms.” And on the word play runs, as the injured Ben is rejected by his former love, the faithless Nelly Gray: “The love that loves a scarlet coat / Should be a little more uniform.”

Faithless Nelly Gray
by Thomas Hood

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war’s alarms;
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms.

Now as they bore him off the field,
Said he, ‘Let others shoot;
For here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-second Foot.’

The army-surgeons made him limbs:
Said he, ‘They’re only pegs;
But there’s as wooden members quite,
As represent my legs.’

Now Ben he loved a pretty maid, —
Her name was Nelly Gray;
So he went to pay her his devours,
When he devoured his pay.

But when he called on Nelly Gray,
She made him quite a scoff;
And when she saw his wooden legs,
Began to take them off.

‘O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!
Is this your love so warm?
The love that loves a scarlet coat
Should be a little more uniform.’

Said she, ‘I loved a soldier once,
For he was blithe and brave;
But I will never have a man
With both legs in the grave.’

‘Before you had those timber toes
Your love I did allow;
But then, you know, you stand upon
Another footing now.’

‘O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!
For all your jeering speeches,
At duty’s call I left my legs
In Badajos’s breaches.’

‘Why, then,’ said she, ‘you’ve lost the feet
Of legs in war’s alarms,
And now you cannot wear your shoes
Upon your feats of arms!’

‘O false and fickle Nelly Gray!
I know why you refuse:
Though I’ve no feet, some other man
Is standing in my shoes.’

‘I wish I ne’er had seen your face;
But, now, a long farewell!
For you will be my death — alas!
You will not be my Nell!’

Now when he went from Nelly Gray
His heart so heavy got,
And life was such a burden grown,
It made him take a knot.

So round his melancholy neck
A rope he did intwine,
And, for his second time in life,
Enlisted in the Line.

One end he tied around a beam,
And then removed his pegs;
And, as his legs were off — of course
He soon was off his legs.

And there he hung till he was dead
As any nail in town;
For, though distress had cut him up,
It could not cut him down.

A dozen men sat on his corpse,
To find out why he died, — 
And they buried Ben in four cross-roads
With a stake in his inside.


With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past, together with the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use