The colloquial phrase a poke in the eye denotes something undesirable—as illustrated by the following from The Sun (London, England) of Saturday 4th July 1840:
“Poking a Man in the Ribs.”—Poke is a very significant word. A bonnet may have “a very ugly poke;” you may “buy a pig in a poke;” you may have the credit among your friends of being (in convivial praseology [sic]) somewhat inclined to get “pokey;” you may get “poked” into a corner at a great political demonstration, where you can hear nothing, or at a theatre where you can see nothing; you may, in the broad language of the “masses,” get “a poke in the eye,” which is a very bad thing; or you may “merely get a poke in the ribs,” a thing not quite so bad, but still bad enough.
This phrase has especially been used in better than a poke in the eye (with a sharp, or burnt, etc., stick), which denotes qualified pleasure. These are the earliest occurrences that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: From The Londonderry Sentinel, and North-West Advertiser (Derry, County Derry, Ireland) of Saturday 12th October 1833:
The Munchengratz Conference is concluded, and the world are just as wise as they were as to what the two Northern Big Wigs have been “saying and doing.” It appears, however, that both the Emperors, Francis and Nicholas, eat their respective meals with very tolerable appetites; indeed we have it from very high authority, that the Autocrat of all the Russias remarked, confidentially, to the Emperor of Austria, “That a bowl of punch was better than a poke in the eye after a good dinner;” and that the Emperor rather mysteriously replied, “he was quite of his royal brother’s opinion.” We hear the Countess Mollrouski’s cat has suffered severely in her eyes, from exerting the feline privilege of “looking at the Kings.”—Age.
2-: From Our London Letter, by ‘Alciphron’, published in The Weekly Telegraph (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 16th June 1855:
The Reverend Threshem Gregg has been in London for the last few weeks, […] and it so it [sic] happened that, by the luckiest chance in the world, I knocked up against him while we were both “riding,” as the Londoners call it, on the river the other day. […] The following is an accurate version of the dialogue which passed between us […]:—
My reverend friend ordered a small bottle of porter. The cabin-boy—a dirty little child of some 13 years [sic] experience of this bewildering planet—brought us a bottle about the size of an ordinary phial, and, seating ourselves on the paddle-box, we were glad and were merry together.
Mr. Gregg (smacking his lips with infinite zest)—Now that’s what I call legitimate tipple—good Protestant porter!
Al—So it is, Mr. Gregg.
Mr. Gregg—Considerably better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Al—I should think so.
Mr. Gregg— l have a remarkable facon de parler for distinguishing between the merits of Allsop’s ale and Guinness’s stout.
Mr. Gregg—Of Guinness’s stout, I always observe that its [sic] better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick; and of Allsop’s ale, I invariably remark that it’s better than a stab in the leg with an open razor.
Al—Your reverence may safely venture on either assertion.
3-: From The Lost Secret of the Cocos Group, published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons) of January 1873:
“‘Now , young man,’ said the skipper, reaching down two tumblers from a shelf, ‘I think we can due business. Owing to the loss of your papers, you see I can’t well give you the surgeon’s berth or pay, but I can take you as surgeon’s assistant. I sail for Colon to-morrow, and so, if you fancy the trip, I’ll give 30 dollars and board you; for you see I’d like to due you a good turn, I would.’
“I didn’t long hesitate, for the offer, though not much, was better than a ‘poke in the eye with a tarry stick,’ and in a couple of minutes I walked out of the cabin the better by a glass of ‘old rye,’ and a slip of paper appointing me surgeon’s assistant.”
4-: From In a London Night-House, published in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 22nd May 1874:
“Three sovereigns isn’t much, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. This has been a fatiguing day. What say you, gentlemen? Let us shut up shop and make everything snug for the night. I’ll stand a bowl of punch and cigars all round.”
5-: From The End Crowns All: An Australian Story, by the Editor, published in The Cumberland Mercury and Rural Gazette (Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 21st December 1878:
Halliday, though intoxicated had enough sense left to know that he had only a shilling left, and that twelve pence would not procure three nobblers *. […] He would treat with the ostler for the sale of his swag.
This idea, as it struck his confused brain, seemed perfectly brilliant, the opossum rug being at least worth a pound or two. With this conception on his mind, he was proceeding to unfold the swag, in order that the full glories of the rug might be perceived, when, to his great surprise, there fell out of the central fold an envelope. Excitedly, he tore it open, wondering with a bewildering wonderment what it could be. It contained a few words, scribbled on a piece of newspaper, and two ten pound notes; a sight of which latter drew from Barnes the remark, meant jocularly, “that he’d rather have the like of them than a poke in the eye any day,” but which for all that was a profound truth.
* In Australia and New Zealand, the noun nobbler designates small quantity of alcoholic drink; also a small glass or container for alcoholic drink.
A synonymous phrase, a thump on the back with a stone, was recorded in Leicestershire Words, Phrases, and Proverbs (London: Published for the English Dialect Society by Trübner & Co., 1881), by Arthur Benoni Evans and Sebastian Evans:
Thump, sb., phr. ‘A thump on the back wi’ a stone,’ or ‘A poke i’ the eye wi’ a burnt stick,’ is a phrase setting up a sort of standard by which to estimate the desirability of any existing or hypothetical contingency. ‘Poo’ curate?’ ‘Poo’ curate, be bleamed! Sixty paoun’ a yeea’ ’s a del better nur a thoomp i’ the back wi’ a stooan any dee o’ the wik.’
I have also found a few occurrences of the phrase to give [someone] a poke in the eye (with a — stick), meaning to deprecate [someone]. For example, the following is from the account of the debates of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, published in Melbourne Punch (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) of Thursday 23rd April 1857:
Mr. F. E. Beaver […] asked Mr. Duffy what he meant by talking nonsense at Warrnambool, about the Argus getting £7000 of the public money.
Mr. Duffy replied to the effect that he did not know any better at the time, and had gained no information on the subject since, but he did not hesitate to state his conviction that it was much more than £7000 with which the late Government had purchased the support of the Argus. He denied, however, having stated that this subsidizing payment was to be annual. He had always been careful and punctilious in speaking of matters upon which he was not fully informed, and not being clear that the £7000 a-year might not be subject to discontinuance with a quarter’s notice, he had withheld his opinion as to whether the Argus stipend could be strictly considered annual. But supposing he had given the Argus a poke in the eye with a dirty stick—was he to be pelted and peppered, and pegged at and pitched into, without shewing fight in return? No!