68  Poor Robin's Dream, commonly call'd, Poor Charity [Euing 285]

Author: Anonymous

Recording: Poor Robin's Dream

Bodies - clothing Bodies - looks/physique Economy - hardship/poverty Economy - trade Emotions - confusion Emotions - sorrow Employment - unemployment Morality - general News - general Politics - Civil War/Interregnum Politics - domestic Politics - plots Recreation - music Recreation - theatre Religion - ancient gods Religion - charity Religion - protestant nonconformity Society - criticism Society - old/young Society - rich/poor

Song History

Poor Robin's Dream was first published as a ballad broadside by John Clark in 1668.


Poor Robin's Dream touched upon an array of topics, but it focused mainly on social injustice. In particular, it contrasted the luxurious and fashionable living enjoyed by the rich, such as courtiers, with the economic struggles faced by tradesmen and the poor. Songs like these were perennially popular - see for example The New Courtier and Thomas Jordan's The Careless Gallant.  

Poor Robin also had some specifically political points to make. The tune to which the song was set  - 'Game of Cards' - raised memories of the civil wars (see Win at First Lose at Last) while the text attacked non-conformists, turncoats and, in a side swipe, the French. 


'Poor Robin’ was the title of a famous almanac and also a serial news pamphlet published (briefly) by Philip Brooksby. In addition, the name was often appropriated for ballads, jest pamphlets and poetic satires. 'Poor Robin' texts are sometimes attributed to Robert Winstanley (who wrote many of the almanacs), but it is likely that multiple authors used the persona of a poor, uneducated man who spoke truth both to the powerful and the populace.

Publishing History and Popularity

Clark published two editions of the ballad between 1668 and 1674 on his own account. In 1675, he joined the Ballad Partnership and sold the title to them (see the Ballad Business essay). The partners kept the song in print: it was still in the warehouse in 1689 and was reprinted twice by the last Ballad Partners of the seventeenth century, Alexander Milbourn and William Onley.

Angela McShane


Alan Finlayson, 'From ‘Come all you Farmers out of the Countrey’ to ‘Question Time’: Critique, Contempt and Ruling Classes in English Protest Songs Since 1603' Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of Protest Song https://oursubversivevoice.com/case-study/from-come-all-you-farmers-out-of-the-countrey-to-question-time-critique-contempt-and-ruling-classes-in-english-protest-songs-since-1603/ 

Angela McShane, 'The Subversive Voice of Early Modern Hunger, 1596–1774', Our Subversive Voice: The History and Politics of Protest Song, Case Study, https://oursubversivevoice.com/case-study/the-subversive-voice-of-early-modern-hunger-1596-1774-songs-as-weapons-of-the-weak-or-ballading-the-badgers-in-times-of-dearth/

Brodie Waddell, God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660–1720 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2012)


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Featured Tune History

To the tune of ‘Game at Cards’ (standard name: A new game at cards)

The purpose of this section is to provide brief notes on the melody followed by detailed evidence relating to  its career, paying particular attention to the ‘echoes’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was nominated for the singing of more than one ballad. In the list presented in the ‘Songs and Summaries’ section below, we have endeavoured to include as many of the black-letter ballads that used the tune as possible, under any of its variant names. Titles from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type (these are also in colour when there is a link to the relevant ballad page on the website). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).  In most cases, we list the earliest surviving edition of a ballad, though in many instances there may have been earlier versions, now lost.

Versions and variations

This tune was known variously as ‘[A New] game at cards’, ‘Yee gallants that delight to play’ and ‘All you that do desire to play’. It was not frequently written down but versions can be found in a manuscript volume of verse in the Bodleian Library that belonged to Elias Ashmole and on an engraved issue of Win at first that was published in the early eighteenth century under the title A NEW GAME AT CARDS (our recording is based primarily on the second of these).

These two versions are both printed by Simpson, who notes that they vary in several respects but are nevertheless examples of the same tune. The contrast between the two is evidence of the manner in which melodies shifted and developed as they crossed time and space. There was no definitive version, and singers must constantly have adjusted the tunes they knew in order to fit the particular texts under view.

Echoes (an overview)

The success and the associations of this tune were built on two closely-related Royalist ballads of the period 1656-63. The second, Win at first, was in fact a sequel to the slightly earlier ballad, A New game at Cards, and it adopted the tune and adapted the text as its model. Both presented recent political developments in England in terms of a strangely inverted game of cards, but where the first was gloomy because the ‘knaves’ had beaten the ‘king’, the second was happy to report that the ‘king’ was back at the head of the pack.

Some of the later ballads that nominated the tune drew on its playfully serious associations to make sharp points through humorous metaphor. Poor Robin's Dream, our current focus, presented social criticisms in the guise of an imagined stage-play. And The Royal Match (1690) discussed international affairs in terms of a bear-baiting event. There are also hints of the original ballads’ edgy playfulness in LONDONS Drollery, which describes a bitterly inventive procession in 1680 that mocked all aspects of Catholicism. The text of The Virgin Race, a song about four maidens who run against one another in scanty clothing, is flippant by comparison, though it seems possible that the tune introduced a certain tone of mockery that is not explicit in the text.

The political-religious theme returned in Englands joys increased and The Downfall of POPERY, and it is intriguing that the same melody animated a pair of songs that celebrated James II’s coronation and deposition respectively. There was perhaps something of a tussle going on here between the melody’s dominant connection with the Stuart cause and its more occasional outings in alliance with anti-Catholic texts. One ballad, No Money, no Friend, attempted to pull the melody in yet another direction, taking issue with all the gaming references in the main thread of ballads and appropriating it instead for a song warning against wasting one’s money on idle pastimes.

There are numerous intertextual references within these ballads, and only a few can be noticed here. The first two songs on the list displayed closely-related opening lines  - ‘You Gallants all that love to play’ and ‘Yee merry hearts that love to play’ – and these exerted considerable influence over subsequent songs. LONDONS Drollery starts, for example, with an appeal to ‘All you that do desire to know’ and The Virgin Race calls on ‘You that do desire to hear’ (though admittedly the second line – ‘Of a Virgin Race run in York-Shire’ – takes us in a different direction).

The moralising ballad, No Money, no Friend, targets instead ‘ALL you that freely spend your Coyn’ and follows this up with criticism of those who ‘play the Fool’ or ‘pick up every Idle Jack’. It may be too much of a stretch to suggest that this is a joke about card-games, though there does also seem to be a playing card on the alehouse table depicted in the woodcut.  More clearly, The Royal Match references the hit songs at the start of the series: the line ‘Fighting the Bear for a French Crown’ recalls ‘Yet he would play for an English Crown’ in A New game, and the later ballad also mentions sporting wagers and matches.

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on this melody].

Songs and Summaries

A New game at Cards; OR, The three Nimble Shuffling Cheaters. To a pleasant new tune, OR, what you please (no imprint and no date, but registered 1656). Wood 401(147). Politics – controversy, domestic, Royalist; Recreation – games/sports;  History – recent; Royalty – praise;  Humour – satire, verbal, extreme situations/surprises; Emotions – anxiety, anger.  A song that represents British events of the 1640s and 1650s as a card game – played between an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman – according to curious rules in which the Knave of Clubs scores more highly than a King.

Win at first, lose at last; or, a New Game at Cards... To the Tune of, Yee Gallants that delight to play (Fran. Grove, 1660). Wood 401 (149). Politics – controversy, domestic, Royalist, celebration; Recreation – games/sports;  History – recent; Royalty – praise;  Emotions – anxiety, anger, joy. This sequel to the song above celebrates the Restoration of Charles II, portraying the horrors of the previous two decades through the extended metaphor of a game of cards, managed by cheats but now reclaimed by the forces of order.

Poor Robin's Dream, commonly call'd, Poor Charity... To a compleat Tune, known by Musicians and many others, or, Game at Cards (registered 1668; J. Clark, 1668-74). Euing 285; EBBA 31899. Recreation – theatre; Politics – domestic, plots; Bodies – looks/physique, clothing; Economy – hardship/prosperity; Society – criticism; Emotions – confusion, sorrow; Employment – unemployment; Morality – general; News – general. An unemployed man falls asleep in his chair and has a perplexing dream in which a series of characters – Time, Conscience, Plain-dealing, Dissimulation, Poor Charity, and Truth – take to the stage in turn and make their representations.

LONDONS Drollery: OR, The Love and Kindness between the POPE and the DEVIL... The Tune is, All you that do desire to Play, At Cards to pass the time away (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Pas[singer], 1680-81). Roxburghe 2.292-93; EBBA 30747. Recreation – public festivity, music; Religion – Catholic/Protestant, clergy, angel/devils; Politics – plots, controversy, domestic, satire; Emotions – excitement, hatred; Humour – deceit/disguise, mockery, satire; News – political; Bodies – clothing; Crime – murder; Death – unlawful killing; Places – English.  A song describing a vehemently anti-Catholic mock-procession that took place in London on 17 November (the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession) 1680.

No Money, no Friend. The Spend-thrift he, when 'tis too late, Laments his sad and Wretched state... The Tune is, All you that do do [sic] desire to play/ At Cards, to pass the time away (F. Coles, T. Vere, J. Wright, J. Clarke, W. Thackeray, and T. Passinger, 1680-81).  Pepys 4.255; EBBA 21915.  Recreation – alcohol, good fellowship; Society – friendship; Emotions – sorrow; Family – kin; Economy – hardship. A man laments the fact that he has spent all his money in disreputable pastimes, and he warns others that one’s money and one’s friends tend to run out together.

The Virgin Race; Or, York-shires Glory... Tune is a New Game at Cards (J. Wright, J. Clark, W. Thackeray, [and] T. Passinger, 1681-84). Pepys 4.26; EBBA 21693. Recreation – games/sports, public festivity; Bodies – clothing; Emotions – excitement; Humour – extreme situations/surprises; News – general; Places – English. This describes a two-mile race between four female virgins in Yorkshire, won by Ann Clayton (Nan to her mates), and it goes on to sing the praises of Yorkshire maidens in general.

Englands joys increased, By the Happy coronation of James the Second... Tune of, A New Game at Cards (J. Clark, W. Thackery, and T. Passinger, 1685). Pepys 2.229; EBBA 20842. Politics – celebration, domestic, Royalist, obedience; Royalty – praise; Recreation – music, public festivity; Emotions – joy, excitement; Religion – Christ/God. A song praising James II while simultaneously asserting the loyalty of all English people and warning those who are not loyal that disobedience will not make them happy.

The Downfall of POPERY; OR, The Distressed JESUITS in Flight... To the Tune of, A New Game at Cards (A. B., 1689).  Pepys 2.282; EBBA 20897. Politics – celebration, domestic, Royalist; Religion – Catholic/Protestant; Royalty – praise; Emotions – relief, joy; Gender – masculinity; Death – execution. An expression of joy and relief that the ambitions of Catholics to take over the nation have been terminated by the arrival of the ‘valiant Prince’, William of Orange.

The Royal Match of BEAR-BAITING... Tune of, The new Game at Cards (B. C., 1690). Pepys 5.376; EBBA 22199. Politics – foreign affairs, controversy, power; Royalty – criticism; Violence – animals, between states; Environment – animals; Emotions – excitement, Patriotism, frustration; Humour – verbal. This praises the bravery of two mastiffs, one English and one Dutch, whose eagerness to confront Louis XIV’s French bear was only frustrated by a lack of resolve from their own commanders.


Some of the political ballads listed above were also issued in white-letter format during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (see, for example, Win at first, and lose at last and The Royal Match of BEAR-BAITING). The tune does not appear to have been used regularly for additional white-letter texts, nor for other songs in published collections.

Christopher Marsh


Elias Ashmole volume of poetry, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 36-37, fo. 105.

A NEW GAME AT CARDS (early eighteenth century), British Museum 1866, 1110.259.

Claude M. Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), pp. 508-11.

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Featured Woodcut History

Standard woodcut name: Old man in chair

The purpose of this section is to provide evidence relating to  the career of the image under discussion, paying particular attention to the ‘reflections’ (inter-song associations and connections) that may have been set up if it was chosen to illustrate more than one ballad. The list given below includes all ballads from the Pepys and Roxburghe collections that feature this woodcut or a close variant (these are the two largest collections, including approximately 3300 sheets, in total). References to ballads from other collections occur only when the featured edition of the song under consideration here (or the featured edition of another song from our list) comes from such a source. Ballads from our chart of best-sellers are presented in bold type, and they also appear in colour where there is a link to another song in the database. Please note, however, that the editions of hit songs listed below are not necessarily those for which digital images are presented on this website. Cross-references to other examples of our featured woodcuts are also presented in bold. It is extremely difficult to date many ballads precisely and the chronological order in which the songs are listed is therefore very approximate (we have drawn on previous attempts to date the ballads, making adjustments when additional evidence can be brought into play).

Reflections (an overview)

This woodcut had a particular attachment to Poor Robin’s Dream and was used on all surviving editions and copies from the seventeenth century. Two different woodblocks seem to have existed but the differences between them are difficult to spot.

The image was also used occasionally on other ballads, however, and the old man in the chair, when associated with the texts that he illustrates, typically delivers wise advice to others. He instructs bachelors on the selection of potential wives, and he also represents a pilgrim with lessons to offer about leading a good life. He can be seen in A Looking-Glass for Lascivious Young Men, working with his wife to force a dissolute son into repentance for his wicked lifestyle.

The old man’s placement on Poor Robin’s Dream is particularly skilful, and may have played a small part in stimulating the ballad’s commercial success. He appears first in a row of three woodcuts, and the textual narrative begins with the dreamer sitting in his chair by the fireside before witnessing theatrical performances by other individuals.The woodcuts thus represent the narrative in a simple and effective manner (though, admittedly, the old man is facing away from the performers). And when considered alongside the other ballads that use the woodcut, the old man brings to the ballad a mood of moral strength. With hand and head raised, he also seems ready to begin offering us instruction.

Only one ballad takes a different approach, and by doing so it sets up some interesting cross-currents between the various songs. On The Papists Lamentation for the loss of their Agent William Viscount Stafford, the old man seems to be associated not with wisdom but with intransigence in the face of overwhelming evidence that Protestantism cannot be defeated. In literature as in life, some senior citizens appeared more stubborn than sage.

[See 'Postscript', below, for additional notes on this woodcut].

Songs and summaries:

The Old Mans Advice to Batchellors, about the choice of their Wives (J. Conyers, 1661-92).  Pepys 4.104; EBBA 21768.  Gender – courtship, femininity; Humour – general; Bodies – physique.  An old man surveys the many types of women that can be seen in London and advises which of them make the best and worst wives (picture placement: he gestures towards a courting couple).

The Papists Lamentation for the loss of their Agent William Viscount Stafford (J. Conyers, 1661-92). Roxburghe 3.76-77; EBBA 30413.  Politics – plots, Royalist, treason, domestic; Crime – treason, punishment; Death – execution; Religion – Catholics/Protestants; Emotions – anxiety; Violence – punitive. An imaginary Catholic laments the execution of Stafford, convicted of participating in the Popish Plot (1678), and notes God’s apparent love of Protestants while deciding, nevertheless, to keep up his battle ‘against whats just & true’ (picture placement: he appears on the right, and he gestures towards two men meeting in a field).

Poor Robin's Dream, commonly call'd, Poor Charity (J. Clark, 1668-74). Euing 285; EBBA 31899. Recreation – theatre; Politics – domestic, plots; Bodies – looks/physique, clothing; Economy – hardship/prosperity; Emotions – confusion, sorrow; Employment – unemployment; Morality – general; News – general. An unemployed man falls asleep in his chair and has a perplexing dream in which a series of characters – Time, Conscience, Plain-dealing, Dissimulation, Poor Charity, and Truth – take to the stage in turn and make their representations (picture placement: he sits beneath the title, next to a figure representing Time who is being followed by a devil).

The Contented PILGRIM: Or, The Pilgrims troublesome Journey to his long home (P. Brooksby, 1670-85).  Pepys 2.45; EBBA 20669.  Religion – sin/repentance, moral rules, Christ/God; Morality – general.  A pilgrim urges patience, repentance and godly living upon us all (picture placement: he gestures towards a tall, cloaked man who holds a mighty staff).

A Looking-Glass for Lascivious Young Men (W. Thackeray, J. Millet, and A. Milbourn, 1690-92).  Pepys 2.72; EBBA 20696.  Family – children/parents; Humour – extreme situations; Gender – sex;  Morality – general; Recreation – games; Emotions – anger; Bodies – clothing.  An old couple shake their dissolute son in a sieve and dislodge from his person numerous objects and signals of vice (picture placement: he gestures towards a finely dressed young man on the right of the sheet).


The image can also be seen on The Old Man's Wish (B. Deacon, 1699-1708; Hazlitt EC65, EBBA 35520) in which an ageing man hopes that his demise will be gentle and expresses his wish for a young girl ‘to rub my bald Pate’. On this sheet, the woodcut appears beneath the title, and the old man appears to gesture towards a young women who carries a fan. 35520

Christopher Marsh

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Related Texts

As noted in the Song history, ballads that criticised the rich were published throughout the seventeenth century, usually prompted by specific circumstances of dearth or downturns in trade. Several became hits: see also The Careless Gallant and The New Courtier

Angela McShane


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Poor Robin’s Dream, commonly call’d, Poor Charity.

I know no reason but this harmless Riddle,/ May as well be Printed as Sung to a Fiddle.

To a compleat Tune, known by Musicians and many others, or, Game at Cards.

[Play each verse by clicking anywhere within its text]


HOw now good fellow, what all a mort

I pray thee tell me what is the news?

Trading is dead, and I am sorry fort,

which makes me look worse than I use;

If a man hath no employment whereby to get a penny

He hath no enjoyment if that he wanteth money,

And charity is not used by many.


I have nothing to spend nor i’ve nothing to lend,

i’ve nothing to do, I tarry at home,

Sitting in my chair, drawing near to the fire,

I fell asleep like an idle drone,

And as I slept I fell into a dream,

I saw a Play acted without e’re a theam,

But I could not tell what the Play did mean.


Yet afterwards I did perceive,

and something more did understand,

The Stage was the world wherein we live,

the Actors they were all man kinde,

When the Play is ended, the Stage down they’l fling

Then there will be no difference in this thing

Between a Beggar and a King.


The first that acted I protest,

was Time with a Glass and a Sithe in his hand

The Globe of the world upon his breast,

to shew he could the same command,

ther’s a time for to work, and a time for to play

A time for to borrow, and a time for to pay,

And a time that calls us all away.


COnscience in order takes his place

and very gallantly plaies his part,

He fears not to flye in a Rulers face

although it cuts him to the heart,

He told them all this is the latter age,

Which put the Actors into such a Rage,

That they kickt poor Conscience from the stage.


Plain dealing presently appears

in habit like a simple man,

The Actors at him mocks and jeers

pointing their fingers as they ran

How came this fellow into our company?

Away with him many a gallant did cry,

For plain dealing will a beggar dye.


Dissimulation mounted the Stage,

but he was cloathed in gallant attire,

He was acquainted with youth and age,

many his company did desire,

They did entertain him in their very breast,

There he could have harbour and quietly rest

For dissemblers and turn-coats fares the best.


Then cometh in poor Charity,

methinks she looked wondrous old,

She quiverd and quakt most pitteously,

it griev’d me to think she was grown so cold,

She had been ith’ City and in the Country,

Likewise amongst the Lawyers and the Nobility

But there was no room for poor Charity.


Then comes in Truth not cloathed in wool,

but like youth in his white Lawn sleeves

He saies the Land is full, full, full,

too full of Rebells worse than theeves,

The City’s full of poverty, the French are full of pride

Phanaticks full of envy, that order can’t abide,

And the Usurers bags are full beside.


Hark how Bellonia’s drums do beat,

methinks it goes ratling through the town,

Hark how it thunders through the street

as if it would shake the Chimney’s down,

Then comes in Mars the great God of war

And bids us face about, and be as we were,

And when I awakt I sate in my Chair.


London, Printed for J. Clark at the Harp and Bible in West Smith-field, With Allowance.

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This ballad is included according to the criteria for List B (see Methodology). The evidence presented here is accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of 1st January 2024.

No. of known editions c. 1560-1711: 7

No. of extant copies: 10

Appearances on Ballad Partners' lists: Coles, Vere, Wright and Clark, 1675; Thackeray, 1689.

Other registrations with Stationers' Company: 1668.

3-yr periods that produced multiple editions: 1673-75 (2).

New tune titles generated: none.

Specially-commissioned woodcuts: none known.

Pre-1640 bonus: no.

POINTS: 14 + 10 + 20 + 5 + 12 + 0 + 0 + 0 = 61

[On this ballad, see also Angela McShane, Political Broadside Ballads of Seventeenth-Century England, no. 958X].

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This box will be used to highlight any new information on this song that might come to light after the launch of the website.

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