A friend of mine shared this poem, which I enjoyed, but I was sceptical of the dating.
Variants of this poem are quoted in books and magazines going back to the nineteenth century. Usually it is borrowed as an epitaph, a splash of colour, with no attempt to find its true origin. The dating above, 1764, is fairly conventional; other versions might say the mid-eighteenth century, although one eccentric offering calls it “Late Medieval Folk Wisdom”.
I’ve found only the one serious attempt to trace the poem, undertaken by James Boyle at Duke University in an article (€) from 2003. He found a version published in 1821 in The Tickler Magazine. The poem was submitted by a certain Edward Birch, who claimed to have seen it on a poster protesting the enclosure of common land; it inspired Birch to add (what he considered) a witty rejoinder.
Since 2003 it has become much easier to find 19th-century materials online, so I can add to Boyle’s findings. By the looks of it Edward Birch was rather proud of his poem, which he submitted to a handful of publications. Two were published anonymously; one in Robinson’s Magazine, 1818:
The other in Belle Assemblée, also 1818:
But the earliest I can find is from 1816, The Gentleman’s Mathematical Companion, where Birch is credited along with a few details about his identity:
Curiously, this earliest submission relates the original poem to the enclosure of Epping Forest, while the later submissions are uncertain whether it was Hainault Forest or Waltham Forest. Perhaps Birch was never all that sure which common land was under threat; judging by his satirical response, he had no sympathy for those who were harmed by enclosure, so he may not have paid much attention to the political context.
I don’t suspect that Birch made up the original poem, but there is a certain irony in the fact that it was circulated and popularised by a man who so vehemently opposed it that he felt moved to add a snide rejoinder. A peasant may have written the poem, a peasant may have plastered it on a wall in Plaistow, but it was the local academy’s Master who sent it off – as a joke! – to a bunch of literary magazines, which is how it managed to survive until our day.
In any case, there is no reason to think it was around in the mid-eighteenth century, and people who insist on reproducing this empty factoid in the current scholarship really should know better.
Edit: 25th June 2019
Below the line, Pamela Gilbert (UFL) has pointed out that an earlier version of the poem was published in an anonymous compilation, Blossoms of Genius, in 1800. I’ll be happy to add any more findings here.