Revisiting: The Old Cumberland Beggar
Poetry Aloud: Wordsworth & Moral Observation
This week we are sending out to all of our subscribers a Poetry Aloud which I recorded just after the official launch of Word & Song last year. We envisioned something less formal for Poetry Aloud when we began than what we have actually done, and we may well return to that original idea, for poetry is meant for the ears more than for the eyes. So give a listen to another great work by William Wordsworth, with my short commentary about what is going on in the poem.
I saw an aged Beggar in my walk; And he was seated, by the highway side, On a low structure of rude masonry Built at the foot of a huge hill, that they Who lead their horses down the steep rough road May thence remount at ease. The aged Man Had placed his staff across the broad smooth stone That overlays the pile; and, from a bag All white with flour, the dole of village dames, He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one; And scanned them with a fixed and serious look Of idle computation. In the sun, Upon the second step of that small pile, Surrounded by those wild, unpeopled hills, He sat, and ate his food in solitude: And ever, scattered from his palsied hand, That, still attempting to prevent the waste, Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers Fell on the ground; and the small mountain birds Not venturing yet to peck their destined meal, Approached within the length of half his staff. Him from my childhood have I known; and then He was so old, he seems not older now; He travels on, a solitary Man, So helpless in appearance, that from him The sauntering Horseman throws not with a slack And careless hand his alms upon the ground, But stops,--that he may safely lodge the coin Within the old Man's hat; nor quits him so, But still, when he has given his horse the rein, Watches the aged Beggar with a look Sidelong, and half-reverted. She who tends The toll-gate, when in summer at her door She turns her wheel, if on the road she sees The aged Beggar coming, quits her work, And lifts the latch for him that he may pass. The post-boy, when his rattling wheels o'ertake The aged Beggar in the woody lane, Shouts to him from behind; and if, thus warned, The old Man does not change his course, the boy Turns with less noisy wheels to the roadside, And passes gently by, without a curse Upon his lips, or anger at his heart. He travels on, a solitary Man; His age has no companion. On the ground His eyes are turned, and, as he moves along, They move along the ground; and, evermore, Instead of common and habitual sight Of fields, with rural works, of hill and dale, And the blue sky, one little span of earth Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day, Bow-bent, his eyes forever on the ground, He plies his weary journey; seeing still, And seldom knowing that he sees, some straw, Some scattered leaf, or marks which, in one track, The nails of cart or chariot-wheel have left Impressed on the white road,--in the same line, At distance still the same. Poor Traveller! His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet Disturb the summer dust; he is so still In look and motion, that the cottage curs, Ere he has passed the door, will turn away, Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls, The vacant and the busy, maids and youths, And urchins newly breeched--all pass him by: Him even the slow-paced waggon leaves behind. But deem not this Man useless.--Statesmen! ye Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye Who have a broom still ready in your hands To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud, Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not A burden of the earth! 'Tis Nature's law That none, the meanest of created things, Of forms created the most vile and brute, The dullest or most noxious, should exist Divorced from good--a spirit and pulse of good, A life and soul, to every mode of being Inseparably linked. Then be assured That least of all can aught--that ever owned The heaven-regarding eye and front sublime Which man is born to--sink, howe'er depressed, So low as to be scorned without a sin; Without offence to God cast out of view; Like the dry remnant of a garden-flower Whose seeds are shed, or as an implement Worn out and worthless. While from door to door, This old Man creeps, the villagers in him Behold a record which together binds Past deeds and offices of charity, Else unremembered, and so keeps alive The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years, And that half-wisdom half-experience gives, Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign To selfishness and cold oblivious cares, Among the farms and solitary huts, Hamlets and thinly-scattered villages, Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds, The mild necessity of use compels The acts of love; and habit does the work Of reason; yet prepares that after-joy Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul, By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursued, Doth find herself insensibly disposed To virtue and true goodness. Some there are By their good works exalted, lofty minds And meditative, authors of delight And happiness, which to the end of time Will live, and spread, and kindle: even such minds In childhood, from this solitary Being, Or from like wanderer, haply have received (A thing more precious far than all that books Or the solicitudes of love can do!) That first mild touch of sympathy and thought, In which they found their kindred with a world Where want and sorrow were. The easy man Who sits at his own door,--and, like the pear That overhangs his head from the green wall, Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young, The prosperous and unthinking, they who live Sheltered, and flourish in a little grove Of their own kindred;--all behold in him A silent monitor, which on their minds Must needs impress a transitory thought Of self-congratulation, to the heart Of each recalling his peculiar boons, His charters and exemptions; and, perchance, Though he to no one give the fortitude And circumspection needful to preserve His present blessings, and to husband up The respite of the season, he, at least, And 't is no vulgar service, makes them felt. Yet further.--Many, I believe, there are Who live a life of virtuous decency, Men who can hear the Decalogue and feel No self-reproach; who of the moral law Established in the land where they abide Are strict observers; and not negligent In acts of love to those with whom they dwell, Their kindred, and the children of their blood. Praise be to such, and to their slumbers peace! But of the poor man ask, the abject poor; Go, and demand of him, if there be here In this cold abstinence from evil deeds, And these inevitable charities, Wherewith to satisfy the human soul? No--man is dear to man; the poorest poor Long for some moments in a weary life When they can know and feel that they have been, Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out Of some small blessings; have been kind to such As needed kindness, for this single cause, That we have all of us one human heart. --Such pleasure is to one kind Being known, My neighbour, when with punctual care, each week Duly as Friday comes, though pressed herself By her own wants, she from her store of meal Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door Returning with exhilarated heart, Sits by her fire, and builds her hope in heaven. Then let him pass, a blessing on his head! And while in that vast solitude to which The tide of things has borne him, he appears To breathe and live but for himself alone, Unblamed, uninjured, let him bear about The good which the benignant law of Heaven Has hung around him: and, while life is his, Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers To tender offices and pensive thoughts. --Then let him pass, a blessing on his head! And, long as he can wander, let him breathe The freshness of the valleys; let his blood Struggle with frosty air and winter snows; And let the chartered wind that sweeps the heath Beat his grey locks against his withered face. Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness Gives the last human interest to his heart. May never HOUSE, misnamed of INDUSTRY, Make him a captive!--for that pent-up din, Those life-consuming sounds that clog the air, Be his the natural silence of old age! Let him be free of mountain solitudes; And have around him, whether heard or not, The pleasant melody of woodland birds. Few are his pleasures: if his eyes have now Been doomed so long to settle upon earth That not without some effort they behold The countenance of the horizontal sun, Rising or setting, let the light at least Find a free entrance to their languid orbs. And let him, where and when he will, sit down Beneath the trees, or on a grassy bank Of highway side, and with the little birds Share his chance-gathered meal; and, finally, As in the eye of Nature he has lived, So in the eye of Nature let him die!
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.