In 1908 as she was coming to the end of her run of classic children’s stories, E. Nesbit produced a remarkable poem that showed off some deeply held political beliefs that had been bubbling under in her work. Jesus in London was ‘a furious little poem. Like when Woodie Guthrie wrote about Jesus and said if he came back they’d nail him up again.’ So says playwright and poet Adrian Mitchell in the BBC documentary An Awfully Big Adventure from 1998.
Despite her privileged background, Nesbit had lived through straightened times and ‘Sympathised with the poor and understood them as far as she could‘. An active member of the Fabian Society, Edith held strong opinions about the plight of the urban poor and the social divisions which riddled Edwardian Britain. These ideas had seeped into her earlier books for children, most explicitly in The Story of the Amulet (1906). Here the five children are shown London of the future by the Psammead as a socialist utopia in which poverty and inequality were a thing of the past. The London Jesus encounters in 1908 however is a far from a perfect world.
If Jesus came to London, came to London today,
He would not go to the West End, he would come down our way;
He’d talk with the children dancing, to the organ out in the street
And say he was their big Brother, and give them something to eat.
He wouldn’t go to the mansions where the charitable live;
He’d come to the tenement houses where we ain’t got nothing to give.
He’d come so kind and so homely, and treat us to beer and bread,
And tell us how we ought to behave; and we’d try to mind what He said.
The He would say, ‘I told you the time I was here before,
That you were all of you brothers, all you that I suffered for.
I won’t go into your churches, I’ll stop in the sun outside.
You bring out the men your brothers, the men for whom I died!’
Then some of the rich would be sorry, and all would be very scared,
And they’d say, ‘But we never knew, Lord!’ And He’d say, ‘You never cared!’
And some would be sick and shameful because they’d know that they knew,
And the best would say, ‘We were wrong, Lord, now tell us what to do!’
I think He’d be sitting, likely, for someone ‘ud bring Him a chair,
With a common kid cuddled up on His knee and the common sun on His hair;
And they’d be standing before Him, and He’d say, ‘You know that you knew.
Why haven’t you worked for your brothers the same as I worked for you?
‘For since you’re all of you brothers it’s clear as God’s blessed sun
That each must work for the others, not thousands work for one.
And the ones that have lived bone-idle if they want Me to hear them pray,
Let them go and work for their livings the only honest way!
I wish He would come and say it; perhaps they’d believe it then,
And work like men for their livings and let us work like men.
Brothers? They don’t believe it, the lie on their lips is red.
They’ll never believe till He comes again, or till we rise from the dead!
One thought on “Jesus in London by Edith Nesbit”
As relevant now — perhaps in some ways even more so — as it was then; when individuals and corporations and even governments asset-strip what they own or acquire and then denigrate the human detritus they’ve created as though it was somehow those unfortunates who were responsible for their straitened circumstances.
I’ll say no more except that Nesbit’s heart was in the right place, indignantly stating these fully justified sentiments with just the right amount of controlled anger.