William Wordsworth

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The Old Cumberland Beggar

from

Lyrical Ballads (Volume II, 1800)

The class of Beggars to which the old man here described belongs, will probably soon be extinct. It consisted of poor, and, mostly, old and infirm persons, who confined themselves to a stated round in their neighbourhood, and had certain fixed days, on which, at different houses, they regularly received charity; sometimes in money, but mostly in provisions.

  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
5   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,
10   He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one,
  And scann'd them with a fix'd and serious look
  Of idle computation. In the sun,
  Upon the second step of that small pile,
  Surrounded by those wild unpeopled hills,
15   He sate, and eat his food in solitude;
  And ever, scatter'd 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,
20   Not venturing yet to peck their destin'd 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,
25   So helpless in appearance, that for him
  The sauntering horseman-traveller does not throw
  With 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,
30   But still when he has given his horse the rein
  Towards the aged Beggar turns 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
35   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 perchance
40   The old Man does not change his course, the Boy
  Turns with less noisy wheels to the road-side,
  And passes gently by, without a curse
  Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.
 
  He travels on, a solitary Man,
45   His age has no companion. On the ground
  His eyes are turn'd, 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,
50   And the blue sky, one little span of earth
  Is all his prospect. Thus, from day to day,
  Bowbent, his eyes for ever on the ground,
  He plies his weary journey, seeing still,
  And never knowing that he sees, some straw,
55   Some scatter'd leaf, or marks which, in one track,
  The nails of cart or chariot wheel have left
  Impress'd on the white road, in the same line,
  At distance still the same. Poor Traveller!
  His staff trails with him, scarcely do his feet
60   Disturb the summer dust, he is so still
  In look and motion that the cottage curs,
  Ere he have pass'd the door, will turn away
  Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
  The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
65   And urchins newly breech'd 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
70   To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
  Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
  Your talents, power, and wisdom, deem him not
  A burthen of the earth. Tis Nature's law
  That none, the meanest of created things,
75   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 link'd. While thus he creeps
80   From door to door, the Villagers in him
  Behold a record which together binds
  Past deeds and offices of charity
  Else unremember'd, and so keeps alive
  The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,
85   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,
90   Where'er the aged Beggar takes his rounds,
  The mild necessity of use compels
  To acts of love; and habit does the work
  Of reason, yet prepares that after joy
  Which reason cherishes. And thus the soul,
95   By that sweet taste of pleasure unpursu'd
  Doth find itself insensibly dispos'd
  To virtue and true goodness. Some there are,
  By their good works exalted, lofty minds
  And meditative, authors of delight
100   And happiness, which to the end of time
  Will live, and spread, and kindle; minds like these,
  In childhood, from this solitary being,
  This helpless wanderer, have perchance receiv'd,
  (A thing more precious far than all that books
105   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
110   Which overhangs his head from the green wall,
  Feeds in the sunshine; the robust and young,
  The prosperous and unthinking, they who live
  Shelter'd, and flourish in a little grove
  Of their own kindred, all behold in him
115   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,
120   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 'tis no vulgar service, makes them felt.
 
125   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
  Establish'd in the land where they abide
130   Are strict observers, and not negligent,
  Meanwhile, in any tenderness of heart
  Or act 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!
135   - 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.
140   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
145   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 press'd herself
150   By her own wants, she from her chest of meal
  Takes one unsparing handful for the scrip
  Of this old Mendicant, and, from her door
  Returning with exhilarated heart,
  Sits by her tire and builds her hope in heav'n.
 
155   Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
  And while, in that vast solitude to which
  The tide of things has led him, he appears
  To breathe and live but for himself alone,
  Unblam'd, uninjur'd, let him bear about
160   The good which the benignant law of heaven
  Has hung around him, and, while life is his,
  Still let him prompt the unletter'd Villagers
  To tender offices and pensive thoughts.
  Then let him pass, a blessing on his head!
165   And, long as he can wander, let him breathe
  The freshness of the vallies, let his blood
  Struggle with frosty air and winter snows,
  And let the charter'd wind that sweeps the heath
  Beat his grey locks against his wither'd face.
170   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,
175   Be his the natural silence of old age.
  Let him be free of mountain solitudes,
  And have around him, whether heard or nor,
  The pleasant melody of woodland birds.
  Few are his pleasures; if his eyes, which now
180   Have been so long familiar with the earth,
  No more behold 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
185   Beneath the trees, or by the grassy bank
  Of high-way side, and with the little birds
  Share his chance-gather'd meal, and, finally,
  As in the eye of Nature he has liv'd,
  So in the eye of Nature let him die.

First published 1800.

Contributed by Robert Clark.